A drive into the countryside around East Lansing will take you into turkey habitat. The wild turkey is native to the East Lansing area, and turkeys have been in North America for more than 20 million years. Relatives of the turkey go back to the dinosaurs, about 85 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period.
Turkeys are big compared to most other local native birds. In the wild, a male tom can reach 25 pounds. A typical female hen might be closer to 10-12 pounds, and will raise a brood of about 10 poults, which grow into jakes (young males) and jennies (young females).
Turkeys are omnivorous, and in the fall they can be found in small flocks moving around hardwood forests and foraging in recently harvested corn and bean fields. (A group of domesticated turkeys is called a “rafter.”) Some East Lansing residents on the northern and eastern sides of town have also reported turkeys showing up in their yards.
There is some controversy about how turkeys got their name, but all the versions of the story tie the common name for this native North American bird to Turkey, the Eurasian country.
One version says that, in the 1500s, the American bird was imported to the Middle East and then into England. Because the birds were (from the English perspective) coming from the east, they were named for their “Turkish” origin. Turkish rugs are thought to have been named “Turkish” for the same reason: they came from the east, so they were “Turkish.”
Why would the English have called anything coming from the Middle East “Turkish”? Around 1500, the Ottoman Empire, centered in modern Turkey, reached all the way from modern day Hungary to the Persian Gulf to Tripoli, so equating all of the Middle East and southeastern Europe with Turkey might not have been a cognitive stretch for the Elizabethan English.
By the way, in Turkish, the bird we call “turkey” is called “hindi”, which means “coming from India.” (The world is a complicated place.)
The second version of the turkey-naming story places the naming on our east coast. At the time English colonists began arriving in the Americas, a popular and tasty domesticated bird in England was the guineafowl, which is originally from Guinea, Africa. When the guineafowl was imported to England via the Middle East, it was referred to as “turkey coq.” When the new American colonists saw our turkey, it looked similar but bigger than a turkey coq (guineafowl), so they called the local bird a “turkey.”
However the wild turkey really got its name—and both stories could be true—the birds were prized by humans for their size and hardiness. The birds were raised on farms in England and could be herded in flocks if their wings were clipped. (Wild turkeys are capable fliers for about a quarter of a mile, but flight has been bred out of domesticated turkeys.)
Turkeys were something of a delicacy in England until the mid-twentieth century. Working-class people would usually have a goose for a celebratory meal rather than a turkey, because of the cost of turkey. You may recall that in A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit’s family had a goose for Christmas dinner, until Scrooge bought them a turkey.
If you’d like to try to see wild turkeys this holiday, perhaps as a way of entertaining your out-of-town relatives, we recommend driving north of East Lansing into the areas where rolling cornfields abut forest. Take Chandler Road north up to where it dead ends at Round Lake Road and turn right. Head from there towards Sleepy Hollow State Park. Odds are you’ll run into turkeys somewhere along that route.
Happy Thanksgiving from the ELi team!
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article was published at ELi on Thanksgiving in 2015.