It’s Thanksgiving once again, the day set aside to reflect on the things we have to be thankful for here in the US; family, friends, and freedoms are among the list most of us could make. Over the years, Thanksgiving has become inextricably linked to a particular North American bird, the turkey. While the domesticated birds that will grace many tables is a popular and tasty centerpiece of holiday meals, selective breeding has it far removed from its progenitor, the wild turkey.
There are two species of wild turkeys, both native to the Western Hemisphere. The ocellated of turkey of Central America had already domesticated the bird by the time of Spanish exploration, and early explorers promptly shipped birds back to Europe, where turkey quickly found favor as table fare.
The bird known as wild turkey is only found in North America. There are five sub-species of wild turkey, with the Eastern race (once known as the forest turkey) being the bird found inhabiting the Eastern US up into southern Canada. Like the indigenous tribes to our south, early documents show Native Americans had semi-domesticated the wild turkey by the time of arrival of the first European settlers.
Largest of North American game birds, the wild turkey is an impressive bird standing almost four feet tall and weighing as much as twenty-five pounds or more. Prized both for its delectability as table fare and the challenge it presents hunters, the bird has long been a seasonal favorite. But the Eastern wild turkey was nearly extirpated from its original range by the 1970s, the result of over-hunting and loss of appropriate habitat. Concerted efforts by state departments of natural resources with restocking and management along with recreation of appropriate habitat brought the noble wild turkey’s numbers back to where it is once again a regular inhabitant of forested areas and a favorite challenge for hunters.
Reportedly the noble wild turkey narrowly lost out to the bald eagle as our country’s national symbol. Benjamin Franklin was noted as a fan of the wild turkey, and expressed his disappointment at its not being chosen in a letter to his daughter. He wrote the turkey possessed much more noble qualities than the bald eagle, whom he assessed was “like those among men who live by sharping and robbing.” Those familiar with the habits of our national symbol can easily attest to Mr. Franklin’s assessment of its nature.