Category Archives: Wild Turkey

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.

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With my apologies to WKRP’s Arthur Carlson, wild turkeys can fly

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Newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) of the fictional radio station, WKRP, broadcasts from the Pinedale Shopping Mall during the infamous “Turkey Drop” promotion.

As Americans, we all have our holiday traditions. Many of us will come together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with lavish meals shared with family and friends. I will carve out a half-hour niche to watch one of my favorite holiday sitcom episodes.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Wild turkeys are slender, swift and fully capable of flight.

Not surprisingly, there’s an element linked to birds in the episode, which is often cited as one of the most ingenious sitcom episodes in the history of television. The episode is “Turkeys Away” from the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom that aired from 1978 to 1982 and revolved around the antics of the staff of a down-and-out radio station. The “Turkeys Away” episode originally aired Oct. 30, 1978, early in the first season of the series. I especially like that every member of the ensemble cast was woven into the storyline for this classic Thanksgiving episode.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                              Wild turkeys are well equipped to survive in the wild, unlike their domesticated kin.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                  A flock of Wild turkeys forage for food hidden beneath a light snow cover.

In the event there are readers who haven’t seen the episode, I’ll try to avoid any blatant spoilers. The action involves a radio promotion that, in hindsight, was destined for disaster. The episode unfolds at the perfect pace, finally culminating in a hilarious series of scenes as the promotion backfires in spectacular fashion. I’ve memorized most of the lines of dialogue, but I still enjoy hearing them delivered by the talented actors Richard Sanders, Loni Anderson, Howard Hesseman and the late Gordon Jump. It’s Jump that gets the pivotal line with his perfectly delivered, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”

It’s that classic line that provides my segue into the subject of this week’s column, which is America’s wild turkey. I sometimes wonder if my favorite episode of WKRP, which aired nearly 40 years ago, has had some influence in persuading many people that turkeys cannot fly. It’s a widely held misconception that the wild turkey cannot fly. The 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.

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A wild turkey hen accompanies her poults to forage for food.

On the other hand, the domesticated barnyard turkey is a fowl of a completely different kind than its wild cousin. Although the wild turkey — the largest of North America’s game birds — can weigh as much as 37 pounds, it’s the domestic turkey that holds the record as a heavyweight. The largest domestic turkey on record tipped the scales at 86 pounds. That bird certainly could have provided an ample banquet for your Thanksgiving meal. Domestic turkeys are bred to be big, which as a result means they are incapable of flight and are also poor runners. Of course, these domestic kin of the wild turkeys don’t face a gauntlet of predators.

Wild turkeys face various perils at all points in their life cycles, from eggs to newly-hatched young to adult birds. Turkey eggs are a favorite food of such wild animals as raccoons, skunks, opossums and some snakes. Young turkeys, known as poults, are often the prey of domestic dogs and cats, as well as a range of raptors, as well as birds such as crows and ravens. Larger predators — bobcats, cougars, coyotes, foxes and eagles — prey on adult turkeys.

I remember the first time that I observed wild turkeys in flight. I was driving near Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough, Tennessee, when about a dozen large, dark birds flew across the road just above the roof of my vehicle. I was definitely perplexed as my mind worked to figure out the identity of these birds. I had almost settled on vultures, although the flight pattern had been all wrong, when I saw that some of these flyers had landed in a field adjacent to the road. On the ground, they were easily recognized as wild turkeys.

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Photo by Robert Burton/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                    The wild turkey gobbler puts on an elaborate display to impress hens.

I was prepared when I encountered another flock at Boone Lake in Sullivan County, Tennessee. I surprised the flock, which was trapped between me and the lake. After a moment of hesitancy, the members of the flock flew across the cove. Landing on the other side, they apparently felt secure to have a gulf of water between them and me. I was impressed by the fact that such large birds can look powerful and even somewhat graceful during a short burst of flight.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The wild 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, which ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The extent of this fowl’s range is only about 50,000 square miles while the wild turkey ranges throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Ocellated Turkey ranges throughout Mexico and Central America.

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 distraught 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. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor of first-rate caliber.

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Benjamin Franklin supported the Wild Turkey as the nation’s official bird.

It’s simply too bad that Jump’s character in WKRP, bumbling but amiable station manager Arthur Carlson, lacked some crucial knowledge about the differences between wild turkeys and their domestic relatives. If he had gathered a flock of wild turkeys instead of directing his sales manager to acquire domestic fowl, his radio promotion might not have been such a stupendous flop. Of course, we would then have never had this classic episode of comedic television, and I wouldn’t have my familiar Thanksgiving ritual to enjoy annually.

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The talented cast of the vintage television sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati.

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                      The wild turkey is a tough, wary and hardy fowl.