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A history of the turkey

Once having all but disappeared from Eastern forests, the Wild Turkey can now be found in appropriate habitat throughout its traditional range.
Once having all but disappeared from Eastern forests, the Wild Turkey can now be found in appropriate habitat throughout its traditional range. Submitted photo

Thanksgiving is upon us once again, and for many across the U.S. today a bird will be the center of attention.

A turkey with all of the trimmings is symbolic of our annual fall day of feasting, a tradition whose roots go back to the early settlers of our fair land. The turkey is an American bird, native only to the Western hemisphere. There are two species of turkey, the ocellated turkey found in Central America and the wild turkey of North America. Of the five sub-species of wild turkey, the Eastern race, once known as the forest turkey, is native to our area. It’s found throughout the Eastern U.S. and into southern Canada. The wild turkey is North America’s largest game bird, standing nearly four feet tall and may weigh in excess of 25 pounds.

Early Spanish explorers to the New World found that indigenous peoples had domesticated the ocellated turkey and promptly introduced the birds to Europe. Early records indicate North American tribes had semi-domesticated the wild turkey. Although far removed from their wild kin, years of subsequent selective breeding has produced the birds that grace many of our tables today and made turkey traditional favored fare of the holiday season.

The true wild turkey population was nearly wiped out in Eastern North America by the 1970’s as a result of over-hunting coupled with loss of suitable habitat. Fortunately for us and the birds, concerted efforts by state natural resource agencies to re-introduce and manage for the birds’ populations have allowed the noble turkey to re-establish itself in its traditional home range, and in numbers sufficient to allow hunters to continue to pit their skills against the wily game bird. Any devotee of turkey hunting can readily attest to the fact that wild turkeys are not “dumb animals.” In spite of their wily and elusive nature, wild turkeys can behave in a surprisingly tame manner, and are occasionally sighted in our area near developments adjacent to forested habitats.

Benjamin Franklin was noted as a fan of the wild turkey, and in a letter to his daughter expressed some disappointment that it was not chosen as the national symbol of the United States of America. Mr. Franklin opined the wild turkey was a more respectable bird than the bald eagle, whom he assessed was “like those among men who live by sharping and robbing.” Those familiar with the behaviors of our national symbol know of which Mr. Franklin spoke.

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