Shake, Wattle and Gobble: Talking Turkey


A male Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) feeding along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

Just how did the phrase, ‘talk turkey’ or ‘let’s talk turkey,’ originate?  As with many phrases, there are quite a few versions but one that was recorded in an 1872 publication of phrases states that to ‘talk turkey’ was to talk in a silly, foolish way because of the way a male gobbles during courtship.  It was also noted later that that it meant to talk pleasantly because of the Thanksgiving holiday, eating a meal of turkey with family and enjoying the event.  It eventually evolved into a meaning to talk serious business or to talk frankly.

Where did the name originate?  The first European explorers to discover and eat turkey were those in Hernan Cortez’s expedition to Mexico.  The new delicacy was brought back to Europe.  The turkeys started to be brought to England via merchant ships from the eastern Mediterranean and those merchants were called ‘turkey merchants’ and people thought they came from Turkey and thereby, the name.  Shakespeare used the term, Turkey-cock, in Twelfth Night so it didn’t take long for the name to become commonplace.

During the late 1800’s, overhunting and deforestation were taking a toll on the turkey’s population and numbers dwindled until the 1930’s.  Conservation measures were put in place, and with efforts of trap-and-transplant programs and such, the population started to grow. Eventually in 1947, the first unofficial presidential pardons were granted to a symbolic pair of Thanksgiving turkeys.

Wild turkeys evolved about 11 million years ago.

Turkeys have 5000-6000 feathers.

Snood length is associated with male turkey health…. and females prefer males with longer snoods.

A turkey’s gender can be determined from its droppings … males produce spiral-shaped and females’ droppings are shaped like the letter J.

They are known to have 20 distinct vocalizations including a distinctive gobble produced by males that can be heard a mile away.  Each turkey has a unique voice allowing them to recognize each other.

They have exceptional geography skills with the ability to learn precise details for a range of over 1,000 acres.

They are intelligent and sensitive, creating lasting social bonds and are very affectionate, rather similar to dogs.

Click on the image to watch My Life as a Turkey

Click on the image to watch My Life as a Turkey

As an aside, if you’ve never seen the nature film, My Life as a Turkey, it is a very interesting account of one man’s total immersion of raising 16 turkey chicks that imprinted on him and how he roosted with them, took them foraging, etc. for one full year.

Average lifespan is up to 10 years in the wild.

And lastly, Benjamin Franklin did not propose the turkey as a symbol for America but rather praised the turkey as a more respectable bird than the Bald Eagle!

So whether you are having a turducken, tofu turkey, or just plain ol’ roasted turkey, Happy Thanksgiving!

Penny Warren
President, Augusta Bird Club
October 2014