The history of the Thanksgiving turkey is a bit of a mystery. Nobody knows exactly how this particular bird earned a place of honor at the table each November, but historians have a few different theories.

Thanks to letters and records kept by early American settlers, we know that when the colonists sat down to dine with the Wampanoag Indians, beef and fowl were on the menu. This historical meal would later become known as the first Thanksgiving.

Although historians cannot say for sure which types of fowl were served up that day, a letter written by pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions a turkey hunting trip before the meal.

Another theory attributes the Thanksgiving turkey to the Queen of England. During the 16th century, a fleet of Spanish ships sunk on their way to attack England.

According to legend, Queen Elizabeth received this news while eating dinner. She was so thrilled that she ordered another goose be served. Some historians say the early settlers were inspired by the queen’s actions and roasted a turkey instead of a goose.

The wild turkey is a native bird of North America. As a result, Benjamin Franklin claimed this made the turkey a more suitable national bird for the United States than the bald eagle.

Not everyone agreed with Franklin, however, and the bald eagle became the national emblem for the United States in 1782. The bald eagle may be America’s bird 364 days a year, but the turkey has one day all to itself — Thanksgiving.

Here’s some interesting turkey trivia that might surprise you:

  • Turkeys have heart attacks. Entire fields of turkeys were known to drop dead from the loud noise of Air Force jets breaking the sound barrier while on test flights.
  • Wild turkeys can fly, but domestic turkeys cannot.
  • Turkeys can run up to 20 miles per hour.
  • The long, loose skin that hangs down on a turkey’s neck is called a “wattle.”

 

62 Join the Discussion

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    • Thanks so much for checking out this Wonder of the Day®, Room 21! We’re glad you enjoyed visiting Wonderopolis today and learning about turkeys. Are you excited for Thanksgiving? What are some of your favorite things to eat on Thanksgiving besides turkey? :-)

    • Thanks for all the awesome faces you shared in your comment, Julie! We’re sorry this Wonder made you hungry but Thanksgiving turkey is really an AWESOME thing to WONDER about, isn’t it? :-)

    • Hey there, Miranda, we’re sorry the turkey Wonder was not one of your favorites! We don’t know for sure why turkey is served on Thanksgiving, but if you find out we’d love to learn why! We’re still WONDERing ourselves! Thanks for sharing your comment– we really appreciate it! :)

  1. Hello! I’m doing an inquiry at school on this subject, and I also want to know why we have turkey on Christmas? Thanks and please reply soon!

    • Hi there, Annie! We think your school project sounds great! We haven’t done a Wonder about turkey at Christmas dinner, but we Wonder if you can do some research of your own? We bet there are lots of different dinners served to celebrate the Christmas holiday, all around the world! We’d love to hear what you find! :)

  2. Thanks! You guys help a lot and I’m really excited to research that subject and I know that you have just made my day by replying to me! This seems like a awesome website and hopefully, I’ll ask more ‘wonders’ and we can keep in touch! Thanks again!

    • That’s great news, Annie D! We hope you have a fun time WONDERing about traditional holiday food! We LOVE chatting with great Wonder Friends like you! See you soon! :)

    • YUM! We bet you’re excited for the big holiday coming up this Thursday, KK! We hope you have a WONDERful time with family and friends! Gobble gobble! :)

    • We appreciate all our Wonder Friends, just like you! We like to read everyone’s comments and respond to them all! However, it’s important to remember that Wonderopolis is a place to respect one another, so we only appreciate positive, friendly and thoughtful comments! Thanks for asking, Wonder Friend A! Have a great day! :)

  3. Benjamin Franklin had another reason for not liking the bald eagle as our national emblem. In a letter he wrote to his daughter he wrote how the eagle is an immoral creature. How you judge the morality of a bird is beyond me, and who was he to be questioning what is or is not moral. Anyways I really liked the article. Thanks.

    • Thanks so very much for sharing your awesome comment with us, Josh! It’s interesting to learn something cool and new from a great Wonder Friend like you! Happy Thanksgiving to you, Josh! :)

  4. We eat turkey, ham, and one of our students eats tacos for Thanksgiving! Thanks for the information about the letter about the turkey hunt!

    • Hi Mrs. Worley’s Class! Thanks so much for WONDERing with us! Tacos for Thanksgiving?! That sounds awesome and WONDERful! We can’t wait to WONDER with you more! :)

    • Hi Ms. Phillips’ Class! Wild turkeys can eat anything from insects to lizards-really just what they find in the woods! We like to eat turkey for Thanksgiving too and it won’t be long until we all are! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

    • Hi Destiny! We’re sorry that you didn’t find the information that you were looking for, but we hope that you learned something new! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  5. This site really helped me learn about turkey! I still want to know why do we mainly eat turkey on Thanksgiving? What does a vegan eat on Thanksgiving?

    • Hi Lauren and Madison! Thanks for WONDERing with us! We’re so glad you learned about turkey with us! We eat turkey because it is a tradition that began with the pilgrims when they first celebrated Thanksgiving! A vegan does not eat any meat or animal products so they mainly stick with fruits, vegetables, and particular grains! Keep WONDERing! :)

    • Hi Madison! Thanks for WONDERing with us! Turkeys are interesting creatures! Did you read how they often have heart attacks?! Pretty crazy! Keep WONDERing! :)

    • Hi Payton! Thanks so much for WONDERing with us! We hope you get to eat lots of turkey on Thanksgiving! Keep WONDERing! :)

  6. We love Thanksgiving. Thanks for the awesome info and why did Benjamin Franklin want the turkey to be the nation’s bird? We loved the videos too! They helped!!!!!!! :) thank you!!!!!!!!!

    • Hi Yoana and Alana! Thanks for WONDERing with us! We’re excited that you get to celebrate Thanksgiving in just a few days! What’s your favorite Thanksgiving food? Benjamin Franklin felt like a turkey should be the nation’s bird because they are more native to American than eagles! Keep WONDERing! :)

    • Hi Savanna! Thanks for WONDERing with us! We are so glad that you are WONDERing about turkey with us! Happy Thanksgiving! Keep WONDERing! :)

  7. We loved reading about turkeys! We have a question though, what happens if you don’t eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Also if you are a vegetarian? What could you eat that has something to do with Thanksgiving, you should do information on that.

    • Hi Clara and Maggie! Thanks for WONDERing with us! That’s a great questions! Some people actually eat ham on Thanksgiving since some people don’t like turkey! Vegetarians will just not eat the meat like the turkey and will focus on other yummy fruits and vegetables like green beans, sweet potatoes, and even some pumpkin pie! We can’t wait to WONDER with you more! Happy Thanksgiving! :)

    • Hi Lauren! You’ll find vegans eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and even some pumpkin pie! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

    • Hi Nate and Eddie! Thanks for WONDERing with us! Turkeys are fast and just look larger because of their feathers! Wild turkeys are much smaller than the farm raised turkeys that you eat! Keep WONDERing! :)

    • Hi Zach! The history of why we eat turkey is still very unknown, but many believe that the pilgrims ate a turkey or similar bird on their first Thanksgiving! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  8. Dear Wonderopolis,
    We didn’t know that turkeys have heart attacks. The farmers didn’t want the turkeys to have diseases. Turkeys are kind of like pigs. We know this because we have hog farmers in our class. They are raised the same.The farmers care for them. The wild turkey is a native bird. Some turkeys don’t fly. It didn’t really answer the question as to why we eat it for sure. We took a class vote and only two out of seventeen people in our room are not eating turkey for Thanksgiving.

    Happy Thanksgiving!
    Ms. Uppena’s Super Stars

    • Hi Ms. Uppena’s Super Stars! Wow, what WONDERful thoughts you’ve shared! Thanks so much for WONDERing with us! We hope you have a WONDERful Thanksgiving! :)

    • We’re so glad you like the turkey, Miranda! We’re sure you’ll be seeing a lot of turkey in the next few days! Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

    • Hi Giando! We do feel bad for the turkeys when all of their friends get eaten on Thanksgiving! Did you have turkey on Thanksgiving? Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Was turkey on the menu at the first Thanksgiving?
  • How did the turkey become the Thanksgiving bird?
  • Can turkeys fly?

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