I know that many of our readers raise heritage turkeys for meat and some for egg production. I don’t raise domesticated turkeys, but I have wild turkeys that forage around my property. They’re not a common sight in my backyard, but I can hear their distinctive call frequently early in the early morning and at dusk. They are also a challenge to photograph… They tend to forage at the edge of a wooded section. About the time I see them and get my camera in focus, they sense my presence and take cover back in the safety of the thickets and trees.
Recently an incident happened that made me realize just how close in proximity this native poultry is to my free ranging backyard chickens. My daughter went to gather eggs from the coop one day and came back with an unusually large speckled egg. I asked her where she found this particular egg and she replied, “The nesting boxes were so full, I think that one hen had to lay an egg under a bush!” Later the same day one of my border collies was going through her normal routine of begging me to throw a tennis ball when I realized that the “ball” she had in her mouth was – a large turkey egg! I came to the conclusion that a turkey hen had poorly chosen a nesting site – a little too close to my dogs and daughter…
As for native American poultry, I would assume that the wild turkey is the closest relative to our domesticated chicken (which is a descendant of the Southeast Asian red jungle fowl). To find out a little more history on the closest relatives to our beloved backyard flocks, I directed this question to the Cornell lab of Ornithology – the experts in American native birds. Here’s their response:
If I understand correctly, all Heritage Chickens are domestic chickens, but not all domestic chickens are Heritage Chickens. But they are all of the same common ancestor. Since Darwin, the prevailing wisdom has been that the domestic chicken was a descendant of the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) of Asia. About 5 years ago, a DNA study clarified the issue: though chickens are indeed primarily derived from red jungle fowls at some point after chickens were first domesticated, they interbred with grey jungle fowls which resulted in the incorporation of the gene that turned their legs a pleasing yellow color. – Link: Darwin was wrong about (chicken) evolution
As far as the Prairie-Chicken group goes—they are of the same order and family as the domestic chicken (order: Galliformes; family: Phasianidae), but of different genera (the Prairie-Chickens are Tympanuchus, the domestic chicken/junglefowl are Gallus). There is no evidence to suggest that any of the North American native species were domesticated or had any connection to what became the domestic chicken. The Phasianidae family includes pheasants, partridges, grouse, junglefowl, chickens, Old and New World quail, and peafowl.
As far as the native people’s use of the other Phasianidae in North America, (this would include dozens of species—the prairie chickens, the grouse, the ptarmigans, the new world quail, and the Wild Turkey), it seems likely they would have made use of them wherever they were available—but I don’t have the resources available to provide specifics on that subject. As I understand it, ducks and geese were far more important than these smaller game birds to many indigenous groups.
Marc Devokaitis – Public Information Specialist, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Thanks Marc for your reply to my question and for sharing your insight and information. I also find these interesting facts on the Cornell website:
The Wild Turkey and the Muscovy Duck are the only two domesticated birds native to the New World. In the early 1500s, European explorers brought home and domesticated Wild Turkeys from Mexico. They quickly became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. Later, when English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them.
I would assume from these domesticated turkeys from Mexico are the original ancestor of the many different breeds of present day heritage turkeys. As for the commercially grown turkey – that is a man-made genetically altered variety… Link: The anatomy of a Factory Farmed Turkey
I also asked the followers of our Community Chickens facebook page if any one had wild turkeys that visited their property. I love the comment I received from Mary Sonier, “We don’t have domesticated turkeys, but do get visited by wild turkeys, and had one hen “adopt” our chickens. We had just moved some youngsters (maybe 8-10 weeks) outside, when she happened to show up. She stayed for about 1-1/2 years, off and on, and acted as their protector – chasing off foxes, facing down hawks, etc. The only thing she didn’t “do” was snakes. When one got too close to “her” chickens, she came to the window and called me – loudly! – to come deal with it! She would even flirt with our greyhound – he’d play-bow and she’d dance! We missed her terribly when she stopped coming around.”
Thanks Mary for sharing that wonderful story of a native bird adopting your backyard chicks! For the ultimate example of humans interacting with this beautiful native American bird, PBS has a wonderful documentary, My Life as a Turkey, that is well worth watching… Click here to watch the full online episode or purchase the DVD: My Life as a Turkey
For more info on raising heritage chickens, refer to the helpful articles by Community Chickens writer, Jennifer Sartell:
Do you have wild turkeys that free range around your property? Share your stories in a comment below and share your photos on our facebook page!