Hey, Turkey! A history of the wild turkey in North America

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The RoVing Naturalist

 By Dennis Prichard


Hey, Turkey!
Ol’ Ben Franklin sure didn’t know what he was talking about when he suggested the wild turkey for our national symbol. He thought it was a proud bird of the forest, while the bald eagle was a lowly scavenger which stole food from other birds. The turkey, he claimed, was more typical of a true American bird than the eagle. Although a few of those points are true, Ol’ Ben didn’t realize just how stupid the turkey is.

Turkey hunters may jump all over me for this statement, but it’s true. Well, turkeys are not dumb in a natural sense, but in human terms they are. For instance, hunters will spend countless hours – no, days and even weeks – perfecting their call to entice a gobbler on opening day of the season. But turkeys will sometimes answer barking dogs. At times a beginning hunter can call up a turkey just as well as a veteran. It’s not necessarily how well you call, it’s when and where. Many hunters can be successful without calling at all if they know the habits of their prey.

Authorities say there is no bird more “American” than the turkey. Maybe so, but its origin is in Central America, not North America. When the first European explorers to the New World brought this large bird back home with them, scholars were reminded of the fowl that came from Eurasia, namely the country of Turkey. The name stuck. How American is that?

Pueblo people domesticated the wild turkey, and the first white explorers to the Southwest found them in almost every village. Archaeologists dig up turkey bones in the trash piles left near prehistoric sites. Some have holes in them indicating it was used as a whistle or flute. The bird was very much a part of puebloan culture and a vital food source.

Pilgrims and other colonists found the bird to be delicious, and the habitat where it lived was even more desirable. The gun and the plow soon spelled doom for the wild turkey. In a few short centuries, few turkeys could be heard gobbling east of the Mississippi River. People of the 20th century finally realized the plight of this bird and started transplanting populations back into the states where habitat had been restored. Turkeys are once again plentiful in almost every state, thanks mostly to hunters. A tax on arms and ammunition has been used to create and restore habitat not only for turkeys specifically, but for all animals that use the same habitat as the wild turkey.

By our standards, turkeys may not be all that smart but they are keenly aware of their environment. Movement catches their eye foiling most hunters’ chances. The sun’s glint off a shiny gun barrel or wrist watch is all it takes to send the birds scattering through dense brush to safety. They prefer to run from trouble rather than fly, as their wings are not strong. Still they are used to lift the birds to a high roost safe from harm at night. Their hearing is also acute and allows them a quiet escape long before the predator (or hunter) ever sees its prey.

If you consider these survival techniques and their propensity for sharp observation, the turkey seems to do all right for itself. Hey, turkey, you’re not so dumb after all!

Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.

 

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Liz

Hi Dennis,
While reading your article I had to laugh. Those turkey hunters sound like the “dumb” ones… all those lifetimes and hours spent trying to bag a “pretty smart” bird when they just need to dull their gun barrels & hold still!
(Just joking),
Liz