Be thankful for turkeys this year

Author Photo
By Martha R. Fehl

It’s that time when turkeys can be spotted strolling through woods and prairies, and – in tamer environs – serving as the centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Contrary to popular opinion, the bird in the wild is an intelligent and cagey creature – and perhaps its long history is the best testament to this. Scientists believe that turkeys may have shared time and space with vegetarian dinosaurs more than 25 million years ago.

In more recent history, natives in Mexico had long domesticated the bird by the beginning of the 16th century. The fowls were part of the prizes Spaniards shipped back home in 1519, and turkeys spread through trade to the rest of Europe.

A popular dish

The Pilgrims and Indians probably served turkey often – the birds were plentiful back then. Pioneers are said to have used the wild turkey breast as a substitute for bread. Women believed the fat on the back of the bird was better for baking than butter, and they used the eggs for making dumplings.

While turkeys may have been plentiful when the first Colonists arrived on the nation’s shores, conservation efforts had to be used in 1930 to try to restore these wild birds to their earlier habitat. By 1960, the turkey population leapfrogged to an estimated 4 million turkeys in 49 states, including Hawaii. (There were none in Alaska.) They are now available for hunting or just for pleasure.

Appearance and habits

Should passersby happen to see a turkey in the wild, they can identify the male bird by its beard, a thick tuft of specialized hairlike feathers that sprout from the middle of its chest. The beard may droop eight or nine inches. It will grow throughout a gobbler’s life (six to nine years) until the oldest patriarchs are able to drag their beards on the ground when feeding.

The bird’s diet is much humbler than ours, if no less varied. These feathered omnivores eat insects such as grasshoppers, berries, fruit, tubers, seeds and some small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards and snakes. When autumn approaches, they dig and scratch through fallen leaves for food, leaving raked swatches on the ground.

Whatever a turkey swallows goes into its gizzard, the muscular portion of the stomach that can crush food with a pressure equal to a 500-pound vise. Here in the United States, turkeys dine well on acorns and hickory nuts, while in Europe they forage on English walnuts.

There are six wild varieties of turkey in different parts of the United States, differing primarily in size, with slight color variations. They lay about a dozen yellow-white eggs with brownish spotting and can live up to eight years.

Today, we produce 200 million domestic turkeys a year in the United States. If the bird seems overpriced at the grocery store, note that $2,000 was paid for a 71-pound turkey named ‘Mr. Chuckle IV’ at an auction in 1977.

Published on Nov 1, 2005