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Do you think the turkey should be the national emblem of the United States instead of the bald eagle? Benjamin Franklin thought so. He felt that the turkey was a much more respectable bird and a true original native of America.

Turkeys belong to the family Meleagrididae. There are two species: the common turkey, a native game bird of North American (domesticated for table fare), and the smaller, ocellated turkey of Central America. They're related to the grouse and pheasant.

Baby turkeys are called poults. Adult females are hens; males are referred to as toms or gobblers in the U.S. and stags in Britain. Yearling gobblers are called jakes; first-year hens are jennies. The fleshy appendage that hangs down over a male turkey's beak is called a "snood." Females generally weigh about half as much as the males. Turkey eggs take 28 days to hatch.

The wild turkey has longer legs and neck, a more slender body, smaller head, and darker plumage than does the domestic turkey. Male turkeys differ from females in that they have longer legs and neck, a larger foot, and larger bodies. Males have a bronzy, iridescent body plumage with black-tipped breast feathers; hens have light-brown breast feather tips.

Wild turkeys prefer woodland inhabitants near water. They spend their days foraging for food. About 90 percent of the turkey's diet comes from plants, including green foliage of grasses, vines, acorns, buds, seeds and fruits. Occasionally, they'll dine on insects or a frog or a lizard. Turkeys run rapidly when alarmed and can fly strongly for short distances, flapping wildly until airborne, then gliding to a landing. Their nights are spent roosting in trees.

Wild turkeys segregate into flocks on the basis of sex and, to some extent, age. Within a flock there is a hierarchy or pecking order in which a rank of dominance is established. Generally, older birds are more dominant than are younger birds, and larger turkeys dominate smaller turkeys. Males usually dominate females.

The first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621, at a time when wild turkey populations were abundant and thriving. At the turn of the 20th century, however, the populations declined as a result of hunting pressure and forest clearing. Following a push for restoration and management programs, the birds have survived and are now abundant. They exist in every state except Alaska.

In 1941, Thanksgiving was sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday on the fourth Thursday in November. An estimated 45 million farm-raised birds are served at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter.

Uploaded: 2/21/2004