By Bryan Stevens
Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. Thanks to the federal government eventually moving to protect the wild turkey population, this bird today is quite common across the nation. Fields bordering woodlands are a great place to observe wild turkeys strutting their stuff, especially during the autumn and winter seasons when turkeys form large flocks, which are also known as “rafters.” Watching a male turkey, or tom, fan his impressive tail feathers to get the attention of hens or intimidate other male rivals offers a peek into the thinking some of the nation’s founders held regarding the wild turkey.
In fact, if some of the nation’s founders had their way, the turkey might have been honored as the official bird of the United States. The other contender for the honor — the bald eagle, which became the nation’s actual official bird — had its fair share of famous detractors among some of the nation’s founding fathers.
Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, praised the bird’s courage and expressed displeasure when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
No less than George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor of first-rate caliber. Shockingly, the wild turkey, which was so abundant during the Pilgrim era in Massachusetts, almost didn’t survive until the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the ivory-billed woodpecker and Labrador duck. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.
The turkey’s association with America dates back to when the Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the trappings we associate with the November holiday were missing from the menu. Instead, the Pilgrims enjoyed a repast of bounty that was seasonally available when they held that first celebration back in 1621. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of that first observance in his work titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Some of the details are surprising.
The items available for that first feast included a variety of fish, such as good New England cod, as well as bass and other fish. The Pilgrims took “good store” of fish and “every family had their portion.” Bradford also wrote that as winter approached, Massachusetts Bay suddenly experienced an abundance of waterfowl, but that their numbers eventually decreased. Birders will recognize what was happening with this sudden influx of ducks and other waterfowl. They were migrating. The waterfowl were temporarily abundant, but then as the ducks and other birds continued to make their way south, they became scarce again. The Pilgrims may have lacked cranberries and mashed potatoes, but they most definitely feasted on turkey. “And besides waterfowl,” Bradford wrote, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison.”
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving. American per capita consumption of turkeys has soared from 8.3 pounds in 1975 to 18.5 pounds in 1997 and has remained stable at about 16 pounds since 2011. Americans love their turkeys — especially at the dinner table. Perhaps it’s for the best the turkey lost out to the eagle for title of official American bird. Consider how awkward it would be every Thanksgiving to sit down to a meal of roast turkey with all the trimmings while knowing this wild fowl has been recognized as America’s official bird.