Prehistoric humans in the Americas likely enjoyed turkey dinners, just as meat lovers do today, but it was the visual splendor of turkeys -- and particularly male tom turkeys -- that captivated them the most.
"Interestingly, the domestic turkeys were initially raised for their feathers, which were used in rituals and ceremonies, as well as to make feather robes or blankets," Camilla Speller, a University of York archaeologist, told Discovery News. "Only later, around 1100 A.D., did the domestic turkeys become an important food source for the ancestral Puebloans."
The ancient Puebloans didn't know of the Royal Palm, which first appeared on a Virginia farm in 1920s. They surely would have admired its dramatic white and black coloration.
The Royal Palm has since become one of the few turkeys bred primarily for looks and not for meat production. It's endangered, but might still be seen on small farms or on exhibition.
Bourbon Red turkeys, known for their reddish-brown plumage, originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and in Pennsylvania. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has this turkey on its "watch" list because there are less than 5,000 breeding Bourbon Reds in the United States.
The feathers of Blue Slate tom turkeys often appear ash gray with a slight azure tinge. Males of this turkey breed and others mate in the spring, when they seductively gobble for hens. Once a hen responds, the couple will gobble back and forth for a while before the male prances in front of her, showing off his plumage.
After the Spanish arrived in the New World, they transported Aztec turkey breeds from Mexico to Europe, where the big birds were a huge hit. "Over the following two centuries, several varieties of turkey were developed in Europe, and then in the 18th century, these European turkey breeds were imported back to the United States, where they eventually became the forerunners to the turkeys we eat today," Speller said. The Black Spanish, also known as the Norfolk Black, was one such turkey.
Named after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, the Narragansett turkey somewhat resembles the Bronze turkey. Its mostly featherless carunculated (bumpy) head and neck display colors, with this individual sporting coral pink and white hues. Like a visible mood ring, the colors can go to bright blue when the males become excited.
When displaying for females, toms such as this White turkey will strut while dragging their wings and fanning out their tail feathers. An individual turkey can have as many as 6,000 feathers on its body. The feathers don't seem to weigh these birds down, however, as some turkeys have been clocked running at speeds of up to 25 mph.
The good news this Thanksgiving is that, due to restoration efforts over the past 75 years, turkeys are now found just about everywhere they occurred when the Pilgrims arrived, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. While some heritage domesticated breeds are rare, wild turkeys seem to have little difficulty adapting to golf courses, suburbs and other human-centric spots.
Ethan Alpern of the USGS shares: "A group of turkeys is referred to as either a rafter or a gang. So this Thanksgiving, when celebrating with your own group, remember the turkey as more than just the main course, but as Benjamin Franklin did so many years ago, as a noble fowl of American tradition."