The Bird is the Word

By Susan Cary
November 23, 2010
Sketch of two turkeys by Walter Shirlaw

Once a year the turkey takes his place at the centerpiece of our dinner table for Thanksgiving, a holiday situated quietly between the sugar high of Halloween and the shopping frenzy of Christmas.

But what do we really know about the turkey?

Sketches of five turkeys on logs, ca. 1911. Albert Laessle papers, 1897-1971. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Sketch of Turkey on log with head tilted, ca. 1911. Albert Laessle papers, 1897-1971. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Although he has a reputation for being unintelligent, this claim is unfair. True, a turkey may look up into the sky during a rain storm, but he will, in fact, probably not drown.  His neck jerk can be explained away by a simple genetic disorder.

He can also be a bit clumsy, but wouldn’t you stumble on occasion with two centuries of chest-busting breeding to carry around?

Despite his challenges, this proud bird, with his generous plumage and charming waddle, is more than just a satisfying meal.

Turkey sketch, ca. 1903-1919. Dorothea A. Dreier papers, 1881-1941 bulk 1887-1923. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Miné Okubo letter to Roy Leeper, 1971 Nov. 22. Roy Leeper and Gaylord Hall collection of Miné Okubo papers, [ca. 1950]-1998. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

One can appreciate the turkey’s singular majesty by studying artists’ depictions of the bird. American artist Albert Laessle, known for his life-like animal sculptures, meticulously sketched the turkey, studying every angle, every feather, and every stance of the turkey in preparation for his bronze turkey sculpture.

The complex beauty of this otherwise simple creature was also highlighted by illustrator Walter Shirlaw in his early twentieth century watercolor of two turkeys.

The bird’s vibrant coloring was deftly captured by artist and writer Miné Okubo with the red she used to accent a turkey’s plumage in her 1971 Thanksgiving letter to Roy Leeper.

So this Thanksgiving, when you are seated around the table overindulging with family and friends, think for a moment about how life would be without this grand bird, the turkey, and give thanks to him for his beauty and brains.

Let’s not forget, that while Benjamin Franklin disapproved of the original design of the Great Seal of the United States—feeling that it looked more like a turkey than an eagle—he still maintained the moral superiority of the turkey over America’s national bird. Wrote Franklin to his daughter:

The Turkey is…a respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America…He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage…


Need I say more, America? Happy Thanksgiving from the Archives of American Art!

Susan Cary is both registrar at the Archives of American Art and an avid turkey lover.

✱ This post was updated on November 15, 2018.


Hello Susan, nice blog to read, thanks for sharing the article about turkey bird. I got useful information from this article

Susan, good article. We have many wild turkeys around our home and when I see them I often wonder how much they differ from their domestic kin. These birds do seem pretty darn smart and interesting. Even so, I don't think they have received their fair share in the art world. And, no, those stupid kitchen decorations don't count.

Interesting that 100+ years ago, turkeys used to say "gobel, gobel, gobel" (see sketch) and now they say "gobble, gobble, gobble", and that is what we do to them on Thanksgiving Day.

Thank you Mr. Franklin for losing that battle. I still prefer the wild kind for my dinner table but very hard to get.

This is a great article. Anyone know where could I read articles with same idea as this one?

nice blog susan, i like your article with birds!!

Interesting article. I'm doing a life drawing class at the moment which is great - you think you know the shape of the human body till you try drawing it. But our model doesn't always turn up. Maybe we should keep a turkey on standby (not frozen - although even that would have interesting shadows .....)

Just like the turkey, pigeons are a very smart breed of bird as well, in particular the homing pigeon. But I still rather have turkey for thanksgiving then pigeon lol :)

Very nice post on this site.

The wild turkey is a remarkable for it being to continue to spread across much of the country. Sometimes this has been done by restocking them into areas where had once lived but their number decreased because of over hunting or loss of habitat. The mature male turkey are truly magnificent when they are in their breeding plumage.

Is a turkey really a bird or a chicken?

thanks for sharing the article about turkey bird and maybe some people will think for a moment about how life would be without this grand bird:)

My first job out of college was in Monroe, North Carolina, near the home of the Cuddy Turkey Co. (Also seen everywhere were Holly Farms chicken houses). Anyway, as I drove to my interview before hire, I noticed both sides of both lanes of traffic lined with large white feathers. I thought there must have been a parade or something! But it was just the afterglow of hundreds of truckloads of big, white roaster turkeys (pre-roasting, of course!).