story and photos by John Adamski
The tradition of serving turkey for Thanksgiving dinner dates back to 1621 when Pilgrims from England celebrated their first harvest in the Plymouth Colony, one year after arriving in the New World aboard the Mayflower. The event that we now know as The First Thanksgiving was actually a festival that lasted several days, and according to contemporary accounts, was attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The Pilgrims, who were devout Puritan Christians, had already been accustomed to celebrating Thanksgivings in Europe, which were days of prayer to thank God for his many blessings. And the Native Americans were equally thankful to their own Creator for many of the same reasons.
Today in the United States, Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. But even though it had been commemorated on and off since 1789, it wasn’t until 1863 during the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November to be the official day for offering “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” And so, we’ve been giving thanks and feasting on stuffed oven-roasted turkey, candied yams, mashed potatoes with gravy, buttered squash, and sweetened sour cranberries ever since—and topping it all off with a slice or two of spiced pumpkin pie.
The Main Course
But why turkey? In 1620, the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower to a place now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. While exploring indigenous food sources, they were befriended by Native Americans who taught them how to lure and capture wild turkeys. The colonists were surprised to see that wild turkeys in the New World behaved in ways that were similar to the domesticated turkeys that they were familiar with back in England.
Although the wild turkey has excellent vision, it is not particularly bright. Indians showed the colonists how to build turkey traps, which were four-sided pens assembled from small-diameter horizontal logs that had a tunnel dug beneath one of the sides and rows of saplings spread across the top. A trail of corn lured turkeys out of the woods, down through the tunnel, and into the interior of the pen where a generous pile of corn kept them there. When the corn was gone, the turkeys became confused and were unable to find their way back out of the pen. And the saplings spread over the top kept them from taking flight.
Like the bison, wild turkey populations numbered in the millions when the first Europeans arrived. Pre-Columbian populations were conservatively estimated at more than 10 million birds. Early Colonial accounts of wild turkey abundance are common and the plentiful native bird soon became a principal food source for the New World’s early settlers. Native Americans had already relied on wild turkeys for food, clothing decorations, tools, and ceremonial purposes, but in a way that had no significant effect on wild turkey species survival or population dynamics.
As Colonial populations grew, however, so did the demand for wild turkeys. Unregulated subsistence hunting and excessive market hunting—which often resulted in the killing of several hundred birds at a time—combined with the effects of habitat loss to take an exhaustive toll on wild turkey populations. Clearing forests for farmland and timber significantly reduced the wild turkey’s natural habitat and the trumpet-barreled blunderbuss—a muzzleloading shotgun of sorts—proved to be an effective tool for harvesting large numbers of turkeys in a short period of time, sometimes taking several birds at once with a single shot. Wild turkeys can fly fast but they can’t fly far, which made them easy targets for waiting hunters after they’d been flushed and driven toward them by others.
At the time of European colonization, wild turkeys occupied all of what is now New York State except for the Adirondacks. But by the mid-1840s they were gone altogether. And by the late 1800s, seventy five percent of New York State was cleared land, leaving little in the way of any kind of wildlife habitat.
By the turn of the last century, farming began to decline and fallow farm fields reverted to brush lots and eventually woodlands. And by the late 1940s, much of the state’s Southern Tier became suitable wild turkey habitat once again. In 1948, a small remnant turkey population wandered across the border from Pennsylvania into Western New York and established the first wild turkey presence in this state in more than 100 years.
In the 1950s, after attempts to stock farm-raised wild turkeys failed, state wildlife biologists employed a trap-and-transfer program to relocate some of the wild turkeys from the migratory Pennsylvania flock—which by then had grown into a healthy population in Allegany State Park—for release elsewhere in New York. Today, as the result of successful wildlife management programs, the wild turkey is a legally-protected, huntable game species, numbering over 250,000 birds throughout the state—even in the Adirondacks.
Legend has it that—when the new nation was being formed—Benjamin Franklin favored the wild turkey over the bald eagle to serve as the national symbol on the Great Seal of the United States. I have found several accounts relating to this, including some that said he was being facetious. But in fact, Franklin did not look favorably upon the bald eagle, which he considered a scavenger because of its propensity to feed on carrion. In any case, Ben Franklin was overruled and may even have been told to go fly a kite, which history acknowledges that in fact, he did.
The meat of the wild turkey differs quite a bit from the plump Thanksgiving Butterballs to which we have become accustomed. For one thing, there is no juicy white meat on a wild turkey. It is all dark and lean. And for another, perhaps the best use of its long sinewy drumsticks is for doing just that—beating a drum. Or possibly making soup. And because it is so lean, the wild turkey can easily be overcooked. Many of today’s turkey hunters prefer to smoke their brined birds over smoldering apple or cherry wood rather than roasting it in an oven, to keep it from drying out. Another difference between wild and domestic turkeys is this: Wild turkeys can fly. Domestic turkeys are too fat and heavy to fly, which—because they don’t ever get to use their overly-plump breast muscles—is the reason why their breast meat is white and tender.
Even wild turkeys can be easily domesticated by regular feeding so it wasn’t long before early settlers began crossing captured wild birds with domestic turkeys brought over from Europe in subsequent voyages. And while the plumage of the domestic turkey is primarily white, brown or bronze-feathered cross-bred turkeys have become somewhat common as well. But it is the iconic image of the strutting male wild turkey—also known as a tom—with his radiant red head and fully-fanned tail, that always seems to be featured in almost every Thanksgiving Day advertising promotion. The trouble is that’s not an accurate portrayal. It’s Madison Avenue hype.
Wild turkeys mate during the months of April and May. Strutting and tail-fanning are mating behaviors that only occur at that time of year. In an effort to attract a harem of hens to breed, the tom turkey performs a choreographed dance of sorts that is meant to impress the ladies. With his wings sweeping the ground, his feathers puffed out, his tail fully fanned, and his head glowing in alternating hues of red, white, and blue, the strutting tom turkey is indeed a spectacle to behold.
But this is strictly a springtime ritual. When the breeding season is over, tom turkeys form wandering bachelor groups while the hens are nesting and raising broods. Toms take no part in child-rearing. So if you happen to see a wild tom turkey around Thanksgiving time, he is most likely alone or with some buddies. No strutting. No choreography. No fanfare.
Amazing Facts about the Turkey
• Turkeys are intelligent and sensitive animals that are highly social. They create lasting social bonds with each other and are very affectionate; rather similar to dogs.
• The modern domesticated turkey descends from the wild turkey.
• Turkeys are known to exhibit over 20 distinct vocalisations. Including a distinctive gobble, produced by males, which can be heard a mile away.
• Individual turkeys have unique voices. This is how turkeys recognise each other.
• According to onekindplanet.org, turkeys have the ability to learn the precise details of an area over 1,000 acres in size.
• Like peacocks, male turkeys puff up their bodies and spread their elaborate feathers to attract a mate.
• Baby turkeys (poults) flock with their mother all year. Although wild turkeys roost in the trees, as poults are unable to fly for the first couple of weeks of their lives, the mother stays with them at ground level to keep them safe and warm until they are strong enough to all roost up in the safety of the trees.
• Wild turkeys are able to fly at up to 55 mph, however only for relatively short distances. Most domestic turkeys however are unable to fly due to being selectively bred to be larger than would be suitable in wild circumstances.
• The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Female feathers are duller overall, in shades of brown and grey.
• The area of bare skin on a turkey’s throat and head vary in colour depending on its level of excitement and stress. When excited, a male turkey’s head turns blue, when ready to fight it turns red.
• The long fleshy object over a male’s beak is called a snood.
• Turkeys have 5,000 to 6,000 feathers.
• The turkey is believed to have been sacred in ancient Mexican cultures. The Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs referred to the turkey as the ‘Great Xolotl’, viewing them as ‘jewelled birds’.
“Most North American kids learn turkey identification early by tracing outlines of their hands to make Thanksgiving cards. These big, spectacular birds are an increasingly common sight the rest of the year, too, as flocks stride around woods and clearings like miniature dinosaurs. Courting males puff themselves into feathery balls and fill the air with exuberant gobbling. The Wild Turkey’s popularity at the table led to a drastic decline in numbers, but they have recovered and now occur in every state except Alaska.”
To see more photos and information about turkeys, purchase a fresh copy of the November/December 2017 issue on newsstands.