It’s Thanksgiving. Let’s Talk Turkey 26 Nov 2014

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, so it’s time to talk turkey. Total annual U.S. production is about 253,500,000 domestic turkeys, or 7,276,800,000 pounds. We export a lot, but we also gobble up an average of 17 pounds per person each year right here in the U.S.

Related to peacocks and pheasants, the turkey we roast, fry, and serve in endless leftovers, is a far cry from its wild relatives. Wild turkeys, the only poultry species native to the New World, were common dwellers in the woods of our country when the earliest settlers first arrived. Those settlers soon found the large birds to be very tasty, and returning travelers took breeding stock back to Europe and England. By the 1500s turkeys were being raised in England, France, and Italy, and colonists in North America were already familiar with them. It’s reported that in 1621 turkeys were served with other fare as the settlers celebrated a feast of thanksgiving, a tradition made official by a presidential proclamation (an executive order?) issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

As settlers and homesteaders moved west, wild turkey populations were severely depleted. They were shot for individual consumption, and to meet the demands of a growing market for their meat. By 1920 the birds had been completed wiped out in 18 of the 39 states in which they had originally been found. After WWII, a turkey restoration program began in an effort to relocate turkey flocks. Not only has the program been a great success, the critters have actually become pests in some parts of the country, wreaking havoc on gardens and agriculture.

Wild turkeys are the largest game birds in our country, with males weighing from 17-30 pounds, and showing few of the sluggardly characteristics of domestic varieties. Dinner turkeys can’t fly, but wild ones can hit 55 miles per hour in short burst flights, and they can run at 20-25 miles per hour. Hunters find them a wary and highly capable adversary. Bagging them requires careful use of camouflage and the ability to sit absolutely still for long periods of time. It’s also very difficult to sneak up on a turkey. Wild turkeys have sharp vision – in color. The placement of their eyes allows them to see an area of 270 degrees. They also have excellent hearing.

Male turkeys maintain harems of up to fifteen hens, but take no part in incubating eggs or rearing the young. Ten to fifteen eggs, pale buff or speckled brown, about 2 ½ inches long and 2 inches wide, are laid in a carefully concealed nest on the ground. The young turkeys, called poults, emerge after 28 days and spend the first week of life eating a high protein diet of insects. Later they add grass seed, dogwood fruit, wild grapes, acorns, corn, oats, and wheat to their diet. At about two weeks, they can fly short distances, and begin roosting in trees. Until then, they are vulnerable to attack by bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and great horned owls.

Domestic turkeys, bred primarily for large quantities of meat, especially breasts, are nonfliers, and a bit wimpy too. They’re subject to stress-initiated heart attacks. Turkeys in areas near aircraft test sites have been known to suddenly drop dead from cardiac failure caused by sonic booms. And yes, they can drown by tipping their head back in heavy rain. Any wonder they’re called turkeys?

At one time, we barely missed having the turkey as our national bird. Although Benjamin Franklin thought turkeys were “vain and silly,” he nevertheless argued strongly that they ought to be our national symbol. Bald eagles, he said, were “cowardly” birds of “bad moral character.” Turkeys, he said were “much more respectable… and a true original native of America.” Why do I have so much difficulty visualizing a turkey clutching a bundle of arrows and an olive branch as the emblem on a military officer’s cap, or the seal of the United States? Sorry Ben, this is one time I think you were wrong!

So, have a Happy Thanksgiving, but take time to gain some perspective. Visualize the horrendous problems found around the globe, and be grateful for all the bounty we have. Our hearts should be constantly filled with thanksgiving, and as the hymn says, “count your many blessings.” Your perceived problems will largely shrink away as you realize how richly you have been blessed.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.