By Bryan Stevens
I’ve seen a few small flocks of wild turkeys this fall, although larger flocks have been elusive so far. As the fields and woods grow more stark as the cold season advances, I am confident I will start seeing more turkeys. I am even thinking of spending part of my upcoming Thanksgiving holiday looking for some of these very American birds.
The wild turkey has been venerated as an example of an American success story almost from the time the first Europeans settlers set foot on the continent of North America. Even prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans hunted the wild turkey and also made a place for the bird in their myths and lore.
Here are my top three reasons to celebrate the wild turkey, one of America’s most fascinating birds:
First, who doesn’t like to root for a contender? Many people have heard accounts of how the wild turkey was a candidate for America’s national bird. It’s a well-known example of historic trivia that the wild turkey had its supporters among the nation’s founding fathers, but was it ever seriously considered for the elevated status as America’s official bird? The answer’s not cut and dry.
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed a committee assigned the task of designing an official seal for the new United States of America. As is often the case with government committees, the job of designing the seal took longer than expected. After three different committees came up with different designs, Pennsylvania lawyer named Thomas Barton eventually came up with one featuring a white eagle. Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson recommended replacing that eagle design with one depicting the native bald eagle. Eventually, the bald eagle received designation as the nation’s official bird.
Nevertheless, some of the committee members had second thoughts. Franklin later wrote a letter to his daughter that seemed to bemoan the choice of the bald eagle. He labeled the eagle “a bird of bad moral character” and lauded the wild turkey as a “bird of courage.”
Perhaps Franklin suffered some buyer’s remorse. “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” he wrote in his letter. “The turkey is a much more respectable bird.” He also noted that the turkey is a true and original American native. Of course, the bald eagle is also a bird unique to North America. So while there’s no direct evidence that Franklin did anything to actively promote the turkey as the nation’s official bird, he didn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement of the bald eagle.
Second, the wild turkey has a wide range of experience, both foreign and domestic, as a representative of the United States. While wild turkeys still roam through North America, to the tune of seven million individuals, their domesticated kin are farmed in huge numbers. Native tribes in the Americas began domesticating the wild turkey centuries ago. When early Spanish explorers conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico they found that turkeys were among the domesticated animals kept by the Aztecs. The Spaniards returned to Europe with domesticated turkeys around 1520. In the next few decades, domesticated turkeys spread into other European countries, arriving in England between 1525 and 1540.
In a strange twist of fate, colonists in New England and Virginia brought domestic turkeys with them to the New World in the early decades of the 1600s only to be surprised to find the native forests already populated by wild turkeys, which were the ancestors of their domesticated fowls. Today, that back-and-forth saga regarding the turkey continues. One of the most important customers for U.S turkey farmers is the nation of Mexico. Almost 70 percent of U.S. turkey exports go to Mexico.
Finally, the wild turkey has that “in-your-face” attitude that is so American and helps turkeys thrive no matter where they live. In recent decades, some turkeys have taken to suburban living. An article by Brian Handwerk on the National Geographic website puts the spotlight on these turkeys that have taken so readily to living in the ‘burbs.
Massachusetts and Connecticut, former strongholds of the first settlements by Europeans in the New World, are home to densely populated cities like Boston and Hartford. These days, however, turkeys demand their share of the pie, figuratively speaking, when it comes to prime real estate. All a turkey really needs is some cover, which is adequately provided by landscaped lawns in the suburbs, and a few trees that provide nightly roosts. As social birds, they roam in flocks that don’t particularly pay attention to property lines.
In addition, a wild turkey’s a fairly big bird. A male turkey, or tom, can weigh between 16 and 24 pounds. The females, or hens, are usually about half that size. Human-turkey conflicts occur most often in the spring when the boisterous toms are focused intently on besting rivals and impressing potential mates. Unfortunately, these hormone-addled tom turkeys sometimes mistake humans going about their daily lives as rivals.
In addition, many human residents of the suburbs have a tendency to offer food to wildlife ranging from squirrels and deer to perhaps a flock of resident turkeys. Providing food can make turkeys expectant and demanding. To put it mildly, a turkey can be a little intimidating. They’re not likely to harm a human being, but occasionally turkeys will also stand their ground, refuse to back down and even give chase to any human who crosses them. Sounds like a proud American, right?
Now, one last thing for which Americans can be thankful. We don’t chow down on bald eagles every Thanksgiving. It would be awful, wouldn’t it, to eat our national bird?
Bryan Stevens lives in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email [email protected] He also welcomes friend requests on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.