Kenneth Kieser: Thanksgiving turkeys very different from those in the wild

Kenneth Kieser
Going Outdoors
First time hunters find there is less meat under those feathers than anticipated.

There are few similarities between a wild and domestic turkey. 

The big bulging white breast meat on a domestic turkey is not found on a wild turkey. First-time wild turkey hunters are amazed to find plenty of feathers and very little meat. Wild turkeys are completely dark meat, muscles fed by blood due to constant movement from trying to survive. 

Wild turkeys spend their lives moving to feed and every evening flying up to roost on a tree limb, the safety of height from predators. They may fly daily if there are enough predators like coyotes or fox in the area. Constant movement is a wild turkey’s key to survival. Domestic turkeys are too fat to fly, so they don't often use their breast muscles, which is why this meat is white. 

Wild turkeys fight for survival from the moment of hatching and throughout their life. When food is available, wild turkeys can survive our harshest winter conditions. Numerous days well below zero, however, are sometimes fatal. Turkeys scratch through snow to find food like acorns, but deep-frozen snow is a challenge. 

Grocery stores did not always exist and wild turkeys were gratefully accepted during America’s early days. Paintings portray a big group of well-dressed pilgrims standing around the table with their native American friends, everyone grinning with perfect teeth, a luxury nobody had in those days. 

The only accuracy from early artist’s first Thanksgiving paintings is that they did eat lunch that day, possibly some venison, maybe wild turkey, wild duck or goose, pumpkin, squash, nuts and even some seafood like fish or mussels. Pilgrims had plenty of wild turkeys to hunt and history dictates that many were harvested. 

Have you ever wondered how long have wild turkeys been around America? Spanish explorers discovered Mexico in 1517, and on this expedition, they were delighted to find large numbers of turkeys. The men took careful notes and documented every detail of the New World, but failed to tell us whether or not they found wild turkeys or domestic turkeys. Because of this oversight, some historians credit Christopher Columbus as the first European to lay eyes on a wild turkey during his fourth voyage. 

Wild and domestic turkeys were common in Mexico during the 16th century. Historians know that native tribes in Mexico, particularly the Aztecs, were skilled at hunting wild turkeys and capturing and domesticating some of them.  

Domesticating plants and animals emerged, more or less, as groups of hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers and/or stockbreeders. So domesticating turkeys was a choice of convenience, a way to fence in dinner. 

How long turkeys existed in North America before European explorers discovered the New World is uncertain. North America’s native birds have five centuries of recorded history. 

In spite of all the questions, one thing has always been certain – people like to eat turkeys. Its meat was once reserved for the elite; and in 16th-century Mexico, some towns only allowed royalty to eat turkeys. 

When comparing wild and domestic birds, the wild turkey is better known for its physical attributes and attitude. Centuries ago, after seeing a turkey for the first time, an East Indian emperor was fascinated by the wild turkey’s attitude of self-importance. Tom Kelly, a longtime turkey hunter and outdoor writer, declared the wild bird the epitome of grace. 

“His neck stretched out, he looks long and lean and quick – putting every foot down as if he is walking on egg shells,” Kelly said. “When he is most impressive is when he’s coming to your call, and he gets within 30 or 40 yards and thinks there’s a hen in sight.” 

On Thanksgiving Day, you may stop to consider the domestic bird before you. Basted and stuffed, he is not the same wild bird often depicted, sometimes standing beside humble pilgrims in many Thanksgiving images. 

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at 

Differences between wild and domestic turkeys 

Physical traits 

Domestic turkeys can’t fly or run very fast. They would make easy pickings for any predator found in the wild. Their neck skin, or wattles, is heavier. Snoods, the finger-like appendage that hangs over the bill, are longer and their breasts much larger and broader. 

Wild instincts 

Wild birds are sleek, alert and built for speed and survival. Their senses are sharpened through generations of living in a harsh, unforgiving environment. A wild turkey that loses its caution will likely be eaten by predators. This constant state of caution has made the wild turkey one of the toughest game animals in the world to hunt or photograph. 

Turkey talk 

Domestic gobblers tend to be vocal and will respond with a squeaky gobble to almost any noise, but they do not gobble as often as domestic turkeys. They’ve learned that making too much noise often brings in predators and hunters. Skill and lots of practice are required for a hunter to call in an elusive wild turkey gobbler. Domestic and wild turkey hens use similar calls, including the yelp, cut, purr and kee-kee runs, just not as often for the domestic breed. 

Kenneth L. Kieser