Talking Turkey as Thanksgiving Approaches

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs

In a few days, many of us will partake in the American tradition of Thanksgiving Day. Declared a national holiday in 1863 by President Lincoln, this annual feast with family and friends more often than not features a turkey.

Most American Thanksgiving dinner platters feature a domestic turkey, a descendant of the wild turkey. Habitat loss and overhunting drove wild turkey (Meleagris galloparo) populations to dangerously low numbers in the early 1900s and efforts to transplant game farm turkeys into the wild failed. In the 1940s, wild turkeys were caught and successfully introduced to new areas where they thrived. Some 7 million birds now live in 49 states, with Alaska the sole state sans wild turkey.

Unlike its domestic descendant, Meleagris galloparo can fly. Wild turkeys are omnivores and their diet includes insects, acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, fern fronds and salamanders. The bird was a favorite meal in eastern Native American tribes who made use of its eggs, meat and feathers and created additional habitat for turkeys by burning sections of forest to create meadows.

A male turkey sports a wattle, which is the fleshy growth that hangs from the underside of its beak. On the top of hisbeak is a snood – a fleshy protuberance. The wattle and snood figure in turkey mating rituals, when the male’s face and throat blushes red and blue during mating displays. The gobble sound we all associate with turkeys is used by the males to catch the attention of females during mating season.

As wild turkey populations continue to flourish, springtime mating season brings a bounty of stories about turkey-human run-ins. Male turkeys, in their quest for females, venture into cities and suburbs, sometimes actually breaking into human domiciles. In one example, mentioned in a USA Today article, a man in Wenham, Massachusetts returned to his home one spring day to find that a wild turkey had smashed through his living room window:

The turkey was patiently sitting on the couch like he was watching TV,” says Wenham Policy Officer William Foley.  But he got angry when he saw us.

The bird was eventually captured and released in nearby woods.

In addition to these unexpected turkey-people encounters, some one million wild turkeys are legally killed each year by hunters. Hunting organizations are supportive of keeping these wild gobblers around and are eager to point out that wild turkeys make “good neighbors,” as a press release from the National Wild Turkey Federation pointed out. When wine growers in several states became concerned that rafters of wild turkey were eating their grapes, the National Wild Turkey Federation teamed up with state wildlife agencies to take a closer look. Using remote cameras to photograph the day and nighttime activities of wildlife, the studies revealed that deer and raccoons were the primary culprits. National Wild Turkey Federation biologist Tom Hughes noted that:

The cameras captured wild turkeys in the vineyards in all three states [California, New York, Connecticut] and many times they were actually feeding on insects harmful to grape crops. Only a small percentage of wild turkeys, however, were seen eating wine grapes, especially compared to other species recorded.

Finally, reflecting on the early days of these United States, one cannot help but remember that Benjamin Franklin supposedly would have preferred the wild turkey over the bald eagle as the United States symbol. It seems that bit of lore stems from a letter that Franklin penned to his daughter. A newly formed society of revolutionary war officers– Cincinnati of America—had as its insignia a poorly drawn eagle that Franklin thought more closely resembled a turkey. He compared the two birds in his 1784 letter to his daughter:

Typical U.S. Thanksgiving dinner. Credit: Ben Franske Wild turkey nest and eggs. Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson Wild turkey. Credit: Riki7

Typical U.S. Thanksgiving dinner. Credit: Ben Franske Wild turkey nest and eggs. Credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson Wild turkey. Credit: Riki7

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen 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 near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour 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.I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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