Turkey Time

Happy Thanksgiving! Let me say I am so grateful for you, my readers who join me here in pondering the nature of Nature, sharing our experiences of discovery, wonder and appreciation, and stepping with me outside just to see what might be there. And in finding inspiration in the life and work of Margaret McKenny.

Thoughts of Thanksgiving….in short order, lead to thoughts about turkeys, historical and the kind running around today, or available in our grocery stores. One interesting fact I just learned was that turkeys were, of course, native to the Americas and first domesticated by the Mayans of southern Mexico, where they came to the attention of the conquering Spaniards who exported the delicious birds back to Spain. This new kind of large fowl quickly spread all over Europe—and this was the fascinating part—may have been brought back to the “new world” by the Pilgrims. The traditional telling of the story of the first Thanksgiving has been generally debunked but it may, just maybe, have been true that turkey could have been on the menu.

What is not controversial is the ubiquitousness of turkey, on groaning feast tables now and in practically every corner of the nation. And not just in meat markets but flourishing in woodlands and fields, shrub-lands and suburbs. The natural terrain for wild turkeys is highly variable; they eat everything from insects, seeds, fruit, snails, grain and your garden plants. There are three main sub-species found in Washington State, Merriam’s, Rio Grande, and eastern, with some cross-breeding to keep things interesting; some prefer a dry climate while some do better in more temperate conditions, but on the whole these are highly adaptable birds who have spread widely and successfully.

Female turkey, photograph by David Turko, Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Macaulay Library Collection

I remember vividly the first wild turkeys I ever saw. We were driving on an uncrowded highway in upstate New York when one or two burst onto the road from the wayside and flew across our path. They were gone in a flash but the impression of great size and speed stayed with me. Since then we have seen them more closely in Walla Walla, strutting through fields, pecking and gobbling, confident in their numbers and strength, and also in the Methow Valley, equally at home, and accompanied by small crowds of brown fluffy chicks pecking at anything moving, just like their parents. They dominate any field or roadside as they pass through an area; they appear fearless and unconcerned with lesser beings such as ourselves.

Large male turkey, Photograph by Brian McKenney, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology website,
Macaulay Library Collection

Turkeys, however, are prized by hunters. That was the other thing I learned that surprised me. Turkeys did not spread across the land without concerted effort by humans. Originally, their range was more restricted, however adaptable they have proven to be. But because so many found them to be challenging to hunt and then tasty to eat, Game departments in state after state introduced turkeys everywhere they could, experimenting until they found the right sub-species for every environment in the country, except Alaska where the cold winters defeated introductory efforts. Even Hawaii.

Hawaii! Don’t they have enough issues there with introduced species creating problems no one foresaw? Are turkeys like very large starlings? All kinds of questions arise in the mind about “native vs. introduced and invasive species.”

What do we think of this success story?

Some neighborhoods rue the day turkeys arrive to settle in gardens, tree copses and open areas. Turkeys have been reported shredding lawns and flower gardens, roosting noisily on rooftops and patios, terrorizing and chasing small children and pets, leaving droppings littering every surface, and even attacking cars. Apparently they are attracted to shiny metal surfaces and have been known to vigorously peck and dent the doors out of curiosity. As their numbers grow and their boldness increases, wild turkeys become not sources of wonder but objects of vilification and fear. These are very large and aggressive birds.

A large flock foraging in some woods, Photograph by Michael J. Good
Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, Macaulay Library Collection

Ben Franklin thought they should be nominated our national bird. It might be time to have a national conversation about turkeys again, beyond “white meat or dark.” Should we really be actively encouraging and facilitating the spread of this species for reasons of recreation without much thought about the other consequences? We can all pull up to the table and discuss such knotty issues as, “What is natural? What is good stewardship? Where do turkeys belong? Who decides?” Pass the gravy!  And thanks!

5 thoughts on “Turkey Time

  1. Another fine commentary about our natural world. I had heard people on the east coast are having problems with them. They are VERY large indeed.

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  2. There are some terrible accounts of turkey trouble in New Jersey, quite scary as well as just inconvenient. And the Walla Walla stories are similar. When they fix you with their beady eyes….you feel the tables turn!

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  3. Gobble, gobble matey – happy T-day. I have me a friend (Ann without the ‘E’) who used to raise turkeys. One year one of they turkeys he made his escape. He peered in the window at the neighbor’s house just as they be sitting down to they feast. I be wondering how much turkey got eaten that day.

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