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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Who Are You Calling a "Turkey"?

 Let's talk turkey. Yea, you, turkey! You, the large, gallinaceous bird that graces the American holiday table. Some say you're one of the dumbest fowls around while others praise you for your natural wiles. How did you become the choice of holiday entrees in the New World of game aplenty? With deer, buffalo and other game in abundance, the turkey took the honor of being the center of holiday attention.

First of all, wild varieties boast two types of ancestors, both strong fliers (up to 55 mph for short distances) and strong runners (15-30 mph). One type is originally from Yucatan and Guatemala (Agriocharis ocellata; family - Phasianidae) and the other is from Mexico and the U.S. (Meleagris gallopavo; family -Phasianidae).We have fossil records to show turkeys diverged from pheasants 11 million years ago and were likely distributed continuously from middle latitudes of North America to northern South America during the Pleistocene. 

In North America, tribes like the Navajo first encountered wild turkeys after they had trouble keeping the hungry birds away from their scanty desert crops. Losing the battle to bar them from the cornfields, the tribes decided instead to feed the turkeys and fence them in. By barging in and refusing to leave, the invading turkeys unwittingly provided a controlled source of protein and ornamental feathers. Instead of pests, they became symbols of friendship and providence. (

The Eastern turkey subspecies Meleagris gallopavo spread to the Northeast where nomadic Indians did not bother to domesticate the bird who enjoyed the abundant vegetation and thrived without agricultural welfare. Tribes like the Wampanoags hunted wild turkeys with bows and arrows. The turkeys were "called up" by imitating their calls, and then grabbed by a child hiding behind some logs or in a pit, or shot with bow and arrow.

 The wild turkey were probably then domesticated by native Mexicans, and then Spaniards brought tame Mexican turkeys to Europe in 1519, and they reached England by 1524. The Pilgrims actually brought several turkeys to America on the voyage in 1620.

The colonists were surprised to see turkey cocks gobbling and strutting on this land similar to the domesticated ones they brought from England. The delicious meat of the wild turkey was an important, abundant food supply for both Indians and settlers. Soon, the New World Pilgrims were cross breeding both stocks of turkeys at the Plymouth Plantation.

Since that time, turkeys have been extensively raised because of the excellent quality of their meat and eggs. Some of the common breeds of turkey in the United States today are the Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red.

The Name Turkey

Where the name turkey originated is a point of contention. Some trace the name to a case of mistaken identity and being named after the country, Turkey.  These historians believe when the Spanish first found the bird in the Americas more than 400 years ago, they brought it back to Europe. The English mistakenly thought it was a bird they called a turkey, so they gave it the same name. This other bird was actually from Africa, but came to England by way of Turkey (lots of shipping went through Turkey at the time). The name stuck even when they realized the birds weren't the same.

Other history buffs say Christopher Columbus named turkeys tuka, the Tamil word for peacock. Considering Columbus thought he was in India at the time of the alleged naming, not in the New World where he actually was, this definition seems fairly plausible. Another suggestion is that Luis de Torres, a physician who served under Columbus, named the bird tukki, which translates to "big bird" in Hebrew. Some say the North American Indians called the bird "firkee." If so, it's a word everyone else has mispronounced the past 508 years.  

As one of the most famous birds in North America, Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, the national bird of the United States. Franklin actually felt that the turkey, though "vain and silly," was a better choice than the bald eagle. He felt that the eagle was "a coward." His plea, however, was too late since it occurred two years after the official American seal had been adorned with the likeness of the bald eagle.

Franklin wrote, " For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk; and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him. With all this injustice he is never in good case; but, like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, not bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district."

Franklin continued his argument, "I am, on this account, not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours; the first of the species seen in Europe, being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and served up at the wedding table of Charles the Ninth. He is, besides (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that) a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on."

The University of Illinois Extension reports that turkeys are extremely curious creatures by nature. Groups of domesticated turkey have been seen standing in the rain with their beaks pointed straight up toward the sky. What are they doing? According to poultry research at the University of Illinois, it is unclear.

Some turkey experts speculate that these birds are curiously looking at raindrops falling from the sky. Or could they be attempting to get a drink of water? We are still not sure! An old wives tale suggests that turkeys have been known to actually drown in this position.

While this has not be substantiated at the University of Illinois, we do know that without guidance, some domestic turkeys do not know enough to come in out of the rain. If they are young and still covered with down instead of their true feathers, they are much more likely to suffer from exposure than from drowning. Not having enough sense to come in out of the rain may be an understatement in this situation.

 A Few Interesting Turkey Facts

1. Only male turkeys (toms) gobble. On the other hand females make a clicking noise. A gobble is a seasonal call during the spring and fall. Wild toms love to gobble when they hear loud sounds or settle in for the night.
2. The heaviest turkey ever raised weighed in at 86 pounds -- about the size of a large German Shepherd -- and was grown in England, according to Dr. Sarah Birkhold, poultry specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. (, 1997)
3. Turkeys can have heart attacks: turkeys in fields near Air Force test areas over which the sound barrier was broken were known to drop dead from the shock of passing jets. (
4. Big Bird of Sesame Street is actually dressed in turkey feathers. Big Bird is not a turkey, but his costume is made of nearly 4,000 white turkey feathers, which have been dyed bright yellow.

Survival of the Turkey

With colonization, the American wild turkey population was nearly extinguished. According to research (James Earl Kennamer, Mary C. Kennamer, and Ron Brenneman, NWTF Wildlife Bulletin No. 15),the lowest numbers were between the end of the 19th century and the 1930s.

In the early 1900s, only around 30,000 turkeys remained in America. But around 1920, things began to change for the better. Millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Also, some farsighted leaders began enacting more and more conservation laws. In 1937 the Roosevelt Administration passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson Act) which placed an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and other hunting equipment. The billions of dollars raised by this tax have been used in part to rebuild the wild turkey population.

The University of Illinois Extension reports it wasn't until the 1960s that the restoration of wild turkey was heralded as a wildlife management comeback. As the result of restoration efforts, sportsmen have been able to hunt wild turkeys since 1981. Current estimates place the entire wild turkey population at 7 million individuals.

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