Category Archives: Thanksgiving traditions

It’s not difficult to find reasons to admire America’s wild turkey

WildTurkey-TOMI’ve seen a few small flocks of wild turkeys this fall, although larger flocks have been elusive so far. As the fields and woods grow more stark as the cold season advances, I am confident I will start seeing more turkeys. I am even thinking of spending part of my upcoming Thanksgiving holiday looking for some of these very American birds.

The wild turkey has been venerated as an example of an American success story almost from the time the first Europeans settlers set foot on the continent of North America. Even prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans hunted the wild turkey and also made a place for the bird in their myths and lore. Here are my top three reasons to celebrate the wild turkey, one of America’s most fascinating birds:

First, who doesn’t like to root for a contender? Many people have heard accounts of how the wild turkey was a candidate for America’s national bird. It’s a well-known example of historic trivia that the wild turkey had its supporters among the nation’s founding fathers, but was it ever seriously considered for the elevated status as America’s official bird? The answer’s not cut and dry.

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Ben Franklin wasn’t enthusiastic about the bald eagle as the national bird, but perhaps it’s best we don’t eat our national bird every Thanksgiving.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed a committee assigned the task of designing an official seal for the new United States of America. As is often the case with government committees, the job of designing the seal took longer than expected. After three different committees came up with different designs, Pennsylvania lawyer named Thomas Barton eventually came up with one featuring a white eagle. Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson recommended replacing that eagle design with one depicting the native bald eagle. Eventually, the bald eagle received designation as the nation’s official bird.

Nevertheless, some of the committee members had second thoughts. Franklin later wrote a letter to his daughter that seemed to bemoan the choice of the bald eagle. He labeled the eagle “a bird of bad moral character” and lauded the wild turkey as a “bird of courage.”

Perhaps Franklin suffered some buyer’s remorse. “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” he wrote in his letter. “The turkey is a much more respectable bird.” He also noted that the turkey is a true and original American native. Of course, the bald eagle is also a bird unique to North America. So while there’s no direct evidence that Franklin did anything to actively promote the turkey as the nation’s official bird, he didn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement of the bald eagle.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon must have been very familiar with turkeys to have painted this lively scene of a hen and chicks.

Second, the wild turkey has a wide range of experience, both foreign and domestic, as a representative of the United States. While wild turkeys still roam through North America, to the tune of seven million individuals, their domesticated kin are farmed in huge numbers. Native tribes in the Americas began domesticating the wild turkey centuries ago. When early Spanish explorers conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico they found that turkeys were among the domesticated animals kept by the Aztecs. The Spaniards returned to Europe with domesticated turkeys around 1520. In the next few decades, domesticated turkeys spread into other European countries, arriving in England between 1525 and 1540.

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The first European colonists brought turkeys to the New World with them only to discover the ancestors of their domesticated fowl already existed in America.

In a strange twist of fate, colonists in New England and Virginia brought domestic turkeys with them to the New World in the early decades of the 1600s only to be surprised to find the native forests already populated by wild turkeys, which were the ancestors of their domesticated fowls. Today, that back-and-forth saga regarding the turkey continues. One of the most important customers for U.S turkey farmers is the nation of Mexico. Almost 70 percent of U.S. turkey exports go to Mexico.

Finally, the wild turkey has that “in-your-face” attitude that is so American and helps turkeys thrive no matter where they live. In recent decades, some turkeys have taken to suburban living. An article by Brian Handwerk on the National Geographic website puts the spotlight on these turkeys that have taken so readily to living in the ‘burbs.

Massachusetts and Connecticut, former strongholds of the first settlements by Europeans in the New World, are home to densely populated cities like Boston and Hartford. These days, however, turkeys demand their share of the pie, figuratively speaking, when it comes to prime real estate. All a turkey really needs is some cover, which is adequately provided by landscaped lawns in the suburbs, and a few trees that provide nightly roosts. As social birds, they roam in flocks that don’t particularly pay attention to property lines.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wild turkey forages for food.

In addition, a wild turkey’s a fairly big bird. A male turkey, or tom, can weigh between 16 and 24 pounds. The females, or hens, are usually about half that size. Human-turkey conflicts occur most often in the spring when the boisterous toms are focused intently on besting rivals and impressing potential mates. Unfortunately, these hormone-addled tom turkeys sometimes mistake humans going about their daily lives as rivals.

Turkey Silhouette Clip Art Free 27 (1) 2In addition, many human residents of the suburbs have a tendency to offer food to wildlife ranging from squirrels and deer to perhaps a flock of resident turkeys. Providing food can make turkeys expectant and demanding. To put it mildly, a turkey can be a little intimidating. They’re not likely to harm a human being, but occasionally turkeys will also stand their ground, refuse to back down and even give chase to any human who crosses them. Sounds like a proud American, right?

Now, one last thing for which Americans can be thankful. We don’t chow down on bald eagles every Thanksgiving. It would be awful, wouldn’t it, to eat our national bird?

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Bryan Stevens lives in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. He also welcomes friend requests on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

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Wild turkey’s connection with holiday of Thanksgiving dates back to Pilgrim era

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this depiction of a wild turkey hen and poults.

When the Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World, many of the trappings we associate with the November holiday were missing from the menu. Instead the Pilgrims enjoyed a repast of bounty that was seasonally available when they held that first celebration back in 1621. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of that first observance in his work titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Some of the details may surprise you.

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Wild turkey painted by John James Audubon.

When Americans sit down in a few days to celebrate Thanksgiving, plenty of us will enjoy a meal of turkey with all the traditional trimmings. Among the items available for that first feast were a variety of fish, including good New England cod, as well as bass and other fish. The Pilgrims took “good store” of fish and “every family had their portion.” Bradford also wrote that as winter approached, Massachusetts Bay suddenly experienced an abundance of waterfowl, but that their numbers eventually decreased. Birders will recognize what was happening with this sudden influx of ducks and other waterfowl. They were migrating. The waterfowl were temporarily abundant, but then as the ducks and other birds continued to make their way south, they became scarce again.

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The early settlers in Massachusetts took advantage of abundant resources, including fish such as cod (pictured) and bass. Wild turkeys were also abundant.

The Pilgrims also enjoyed Indian corn, as well as the wild fowl that is still very popular at traditional Thanksgiving meals today. They may have lacked cranberries and potatoes, but they most definitely feasted on turkey. “And besides waterfowl,” Bradford wrote, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison.”

So, cod and venison shared top billing with turkey at that early Thanksgiving. Of course, Bradford was writing about North America’s wild turkey, which is a far cry from the domesticated fowl that typically ends up on serving platters on Thanksgiving Day in our age

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A wild turkey forages for food.

Surprisingly, the wild turkey, which was so abundant during the Pilgrim era in Massachusetts, almost didn’t survive until the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and migrating Eskimo curlews almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A flock of wild turkeys makes its way along a grassy slope in Northeast Tennessee.

Ironically, the wild turkey’s valued status as a gamebird (the largest in North America) helped persuade many Americans to fight for its conservation. It’s an effort that succeeded admirably. Today, there are almost seven million wild turkeys roaming North America. The wild turkey is now abundant enough to be legally hunted in most states, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The turkey is once again common across the continent, including in Massachusetts.
The wild turkey is a large bird of mostly a terrestrial lifestyle. Males, or tom turkeys, can reach a length of 46 inches, weigh between 11 and 24 pounds and boast a wingspan of 60 inches. Females, or hens, are typically much smaller and weigh between 5 to 12 pounds. The wild turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour.

The female turkey, or hen, nests, incubates eggs and rears young without any help from her mate. The hen may lay as many as a dozen eggs. The clutch usually hatches within a month. Newly-hatched turkeys are known as poults. The poults are capable of finding their own food after leaving the nest, which they do within 12 hours of hatching. They are supervised, however, by the hen. Wild turkeys require a mixture of woodlands with clearings and fields to thrive. They roost in trees at night, but feed in more open habitats.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of wild turkeys remains alert while searching for food.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. This bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe. The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata. The ocellated turkey ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. In fact, the turkey came close to being named the official bird of the United States. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion, and pointed out the Bald Eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                               Wild turkeys forage for food when snow melts off the ground.

While their objections are duly noted, perhaps it’s just as well that Americans don’t have an official national bird that’s also served up at holiday meals in households throughout the nation. If not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a true American success story.