Actually, Americans call it a turkey only because our British cousins before us did, and they were confusing it with the much smaller Guinea fowl, which they thought came from Turkey. Nobody knows where the Guinea fowl really came from, but it's fairly certain that it didn't come from Turkey. It doesn't appear to have come from Guinea, either -- old or New. Such confusion!
The wild turkey is native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States. There are still some wild turkeys in the southeastern United States, and they are numerous on some of the offshore islands, mainly because hunting is not allowed there. (There is some poaching in the islands, however -- I did some myself in my younger days.) In most of their natural range turkeys have been hunted out.
The wild bird has brown features with buff-colored feathers on the tips of the wing and on the tail. The male is called a Tom and, as with most birds, it is bigger (up to twice the weight at any given age) and has brighter and more colorful plumage. The female is called a hen and is generally smaller and drab. The Tom turkey has a long wattle (a fleshy, wrinkled, brightly colored fold of skin hanging from the neck or throat) at the base of its bill and down its neck, as well as a prominent tuft of bristles resembling a beard projecting downward from its chest. Wild hen turkeys just look like big brown scrawny chickens. Both sexes are gaunt, but they are tasty in a gamey sort of way, because they eat more meat than their domesticated relatives do -- yes, wild turkeys are omnivorous. Their taste varies depending on what they have in their own diet. The ones that eat a lot of wild onions and garlic are best. Island birds sometimes have the strongest taste, because they scavenge long-dead fish on the shoreline.
The turkey was originally domesticated in Mexico, and Mexican domestics were brought into Europe early in the 16th century. The domestic breeds came back to the US about a century later -- to meet a demand for turkey meat when wild turkeys were disappearing in the face of hunting and human pressure on their habitat. Since that time, turkeys have been extensively raised in the US because of the excellent quality of their meat and eggs. The common breeds of turkey in the United States are the White Holland (White Broad-Breasted), Bronze, Narragansett, and Bourbon Red. Farm bred turkeys are fed mostly on grain and plant derivatives to give them a more congenial taste (read that as "bland").
Most of the birds we roast whole and eat during the holidays are the White Broad-Breasted types and most are also hens, killed young at 25 pounds or less -- a 25 pound hen would be about 28 weeks old. Much bigger birds, usually Toms, at 50 to 60 pounds and a few weeks older, find their way into restaurant and hotel kitchens. The big Toms are older, tougher, less tasty, and, most importantly from the proprietors' viewpoint, cheaper. (So now you no longer have to wonder why Mom's was so much better than what you get in a restaurant.)
Almost 300 million turkeys are raised in the US each year -- more than one whole turkey for each man, woman, and child. Until holiday time, most are made into processed products such as lunchmeat and turkey ham. About a fourth of whole turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In October, production shifts to whole birds and plants operate longer hours to meet the holiday demand.
North Carolina produces 61 million or so turkeys annually (who counts 'em?), more turkeys than any other state. Minnesota is second at 44 million. The other states in the top ten are Arkansas, California, Missouri, Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa and South Carolina. Although Georgia doesn't make the top ten, it does claim to have the world's largest turkey farm, just a little bit north of Brunswick, on the Atlantic coast between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Florida.
Virginians claim to have celebrated the first Thanksgiving on Dec. 4, 1619, at Berkeley Plantation, just southwest of Richmond, on the James River. However, most Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, who ate their famous harvest meal with the Indians in 1620. Though most authorities concede that there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrim's first thanksgiving, the Pilgrim Governor, Bradford, did mention wild turkeys in a book he wrote. In a letter sent to England, another Pilgrim describes how the governor sent "four men out fowling" returning with turkeys, ducks and geese.
Every year, the National Turkey Foundation, a growers association, brings a big Tom, 60 pounds or more, to the White House and presents it to the President. In a tradition started in by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, the bird is granted a Presidential pardon and sent back to the farm. The bird is traditionally named Harry. Nobody says much about what happens to "Harry" after he gets back to the farm.
Benjamin Franklin famously lobbied to have the turkey named as the American national bird instead of the Bald Eagle. He said: "I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country: he is a Bird of bad moral character: like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing, he is generally poor and very often lousy. The Turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America"
Links for turkeys:
Other ways to use a turkey: http://www.jokes-funnies.com/holidayjokes/turkey.shtml
Ode to a Turkey: http://www.jokes-funnies.com/holidayjokes/odetoturkey.shtml
Turkey mazes: http://220.127.116.11/holiday/thanks/maze/index.html
Turkey trivia: http://www.woodbridgechips.com/turkeytrivia.html
Turkey facts and crafts: http://familycrafts.about.com/parenting/familycrafts/library/weekly/aa101600a.htm