The Wild Turkey in John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” is not the butterball bird that is a national culinary symbol of the U.S.
Plates 1 & 6 of Audubon’s masterpiece show the truly wild version of the bird eaten at the country’s first Thanksgiving, a national holiday celebrated the fourth Thursday of November. (Turkey also the top meat entrée at Christmas.)
By Rex Graham
The French indulge on foie gras, but in the U.S., close to 1 billion pounds (450,000,000 kg) of genetically hybridized turkey are consumed annually. The Wild Turkey and its six subspecies in North America couldn’t be more different.
Thanksgiving Wild Turkey
In 1621, Pilgrims held the first forerunner of Thanksgiving. They found “great store” of the birds in forests. However, Wild Turkeys were soon hunted to near-extinction. U.S. hunting organizations began collaborating with conservation groups to win a hunting moratorium to help bring the species back from the brink.
The U.S. population of Wild Turkeys has grown from about 1.5 million in 1973 to nearly 7 million today, thanks to reintroduction programs, habitat improvements and hunting regulations that allow Wild Turkey numbers to grow.
“Hunting organizations pushed for early legislation that paved the way for Wild Turkey conservation and restoration,” researchers employed by the National Wild Turkey Federation, a hunting organization, wrote in the May 2015 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Studies. The federation’s motto is “Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.”
National Audubon Society chapters are focused on saving, restoring and expanding habitat for all birds.
Alabama had an estimated 400,000 Wild Turkeys in 2014, and 47,800 of them were killed by hunters that year. That rate of killing in Alabama and other states is considered low enough to allow the species to prosper.
In Ontario, Canada, only 37 percent of 53 Wild Turkey females with backpack transmitters survived during a 2012-13 study by researchers from Trent University in Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. They said predation by coyotes was the leading cause of deaths.
“Despite our findings, the Wild Turkey has expanded its range northwards and continues to exist in these peripheral areas,” the researchers reported in the March 2015 issue of Wildlife Research. “This may be due to high productivity or high mortality is offset by immigration from the south.”
Turkey Reintroduction Chaos
Kansas has become a melting pot of three reintroduced Wild Turkey subspecies, the Rio Grande, Eastern and Merriman’s. Where the ranges of the subspecies overlap, hybrids are common. Researchers with Purdue University (Indiana) and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks suggested in the Journal of Wildlife Management “harvest strategies” to increase hunting pressure in areas with hybrid turkeys. They said this approach would “maximize sustainability” of the three subpopulations.
Turkey and eagle feathers were used in a variety of ways by Native Americans, from arrow fletching and sewing tools to ceremonial headdresses. Excavations of ancient pueblos in the San Francisco Mountains north of Flagstaff, Arizona, turned up very few turkey bones amid large quantities of small mammal bones. “It must be obvious from this and other occurrences that the turkey was not generally used for food in the San Francisco Mountains,” wrote Archaeologist Lawrence Hargrave in Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology.