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In The Country

Letís talk turkey

Tim Iverson
Naturalist

(11/2015) The North American Turkey may not be the national bird, but it has earned itís spot in heart of the nation. Itís the cornerstone of the Thanksgiving meal, and a veritable symbol of the early pilgrims and settlers of the nation. The status itís achieved has surrounded it in myth and misinformation. Benjamin Franklin did have opinions on the turkey, but are not likely what is commonly accepted as truth. A few fowls may even be so lucky as to earn themselves a pardon from the President himself. Just how did a bird of humble beginnings achieve such storied status?

Wild turkeys, contrary to their domesticated brethren, are actually quite adept at survival. Farmed turkeys have been bred to have enlarged breasts, which make them more appealing for the dinner table, but makes them awkward and clumsy. Wild turkeys can fly and are actually quite agile. Their feathering and plumage make for great camouflage hiding them from potential predators like fox, coyotes, bobcats, and more. Once young hatch from the eggs they spend just a few days with their mother learning how to forage for food. After a few days they will begin to fend for themselves and may separate. The females will either form or join a brood of hens. Males will go off on their own to try to father the next generation.

While their range is widespread, spanning across much of United States and into parts of Mexico, they may not even have been part of the original Thanksgiving dinner table. The Smithsonian Instutition researchers have delved into the contemporary historical documents detailing the original meal, and have found no direct evidence that turkey was definitively on the menu - or much of what is considered traditional Thanksgiving fare these days. The very first celebration was held just after the fall harvest in 1621, and was shared between the colonists and the Wampanaog tribe in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Turkeys are mentioned in passing and only as a secondary meal choice in primary source accounts from the time. In fact, much of what we have available today as part of a "traditional" Thanksgiving spread would not have been available to the early English settlers. Cranberry sauce, potatoes, bread stuffing, pies, and more were noticeably absent. The only definites for the meal according to researchers were venison, corn, and wildfowl. The wildfowl likely being duck, goose, or passenger pigeons because of their abundance at the time. Again, turkeys are only mentioned separately as an aside in original texts referencing the meal.

Itís up for debate about whether or not turkey was served during the first Thanksgiving meal, but the verdict is in on Benjamin Franklinís opinion of the bird. Common folk wisdom has it that he was a champion of the bird over that of the Bald Eagle as a symbol of the newly founded nation. That is not exactly the case, however. The misconception comes from an excerpt of a letter between his daughter and himself. The misconception arises in an exchange between the two where he questions the selection of the eagle as the symbol, and redirects to the turkey as a bird of Ďsuperior moral character.í While he does not necessarily advocate for the turkey becoming a national symbol he does try to take the wind out of the sails for the eagle. He writes:

"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our countryÖ

"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of AmericaÖ He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."

Frankly, Franklin might have been a little harsh on the Bald Eagle. He never publicly advocated for the turkey to begin the national symbol, or publicly derided the selection of the bald eagle. His high esteem of turkeys isnít without merit though, because he isnít the only one who gives the turkey a pass.

Presidents, for the better part of a century now, have been issuing pardons to a lucky turkey or two every year. While the pardon is one of the more unique presidential duties and Thanksgiving traditions its origination is as vague as the tradition itself. There are conflicting reports as to the first pardoning, but the earliest claimed account dates to President Lincoln in 1865. The White House Historical Association provides recorded gifts of turkeys from various poultry farmers all the way back to 1870, and continuing through present day. When President Truman was gifted a pair of turkeys in 1948 he is alleged to have said that they would "come in handy" for Christmas dinner, clearly these turkeys were not slated for a pardon. It wasnít until the Washington Post coined the pardon term in 1963 when President Kennedy purportedly said, in reference to a gifted turkey, "Letís keep him going." By the time President George H.W. Bush was in office in 1989 the routine had pretty much solidified into the formal tradition we see today.

Presidents arenít the only ones who value turkeys. The North American Turkey was important and considered sacred by many Native American tribes. Feathers were used in head dresses, traditional dances were created to celebrate the bird, and folk lore surrounds the origin stories. Despite the revered status it held turkeys were nearly hunted to extinction in the early part of the 20th century. Due to extensive efforts by wildlife officials through encouraged reproduction and repopulation to new areas the population rebounded. Continental populations dropped to as low as 30,000 in 1940, but rebounded to approximately 7 million by current estimates.

The North American Turkey may not be as illustrious as commonly held belief holds, but the fact surrounding the bird is better than a fictional fowl. As Thanksgiving approaches be thankful that this bird has such a storied past and will be able to be gobbled up from your table while you talk turkey with family and friends.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson