Let’s Talk Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, so I thought it only fitting I take a few minutes to talk about the holiday’s top bird.

While pretty much everyone has their attention on how to cook turkeys – and believe me, I have seen some absolutely delicious looking recipes out there – I wanted to get some insight into turkeys themselves – what do they eat, what’s their day to day like, what do they like to do for fun, and how did they become to be the animal associated with this American holiday.

The turkey was Benjamin Franklin’s choice for the United States’s national bird and it stands to reason as, along with the Muscovy duck, wild turkeys were plentiful and one of only two domestic birds native to the Americas when the European settlers arrived.

Wild turkeys typically forage on forest floors, but can also be found in grasslands and swamps. They’re omnivores and consume a diet that includes nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and, get this – salamanders! As typical with most birds, only the male turkeys display the pretty ruffled feathers, fanlike tail, bare head, and bright beard commonly depicted in Thanksgiving decor. They’re distinctive “gobble” can be heard up to a mile away.

Here’s a fun fact to wow your dinner guests with: You can distinguish a domestic turkey by its white-tipped tail, as most domesticated turkeys are actually descendants of a subspecies found in Mexico which was brought to Europe in the early 16th century and not wild turkeys.

By the early 20th century, wild turkeys no longer roamed over much of their traditional North American range. They had been wiped out by hunting and the disappearance of their favored woodland habitat. However, a vigorous reintroduction program that began in the 1940s successfully reintroduced the bird into recovered woodlands and beyond. Now they are flocks of wild turkeys in Hawaii, Europe, and New Zealand as well.

Personally, I’ll always remember seeing the annual “pardoned turkey” at Disneyland each year. You know that tradition where a turkey gets the ceremonial “pardoning” from the current President of the US? It used to be that the lucky turkey would then get flown to Anaheim, California and be put on display in the Disneyland petting zoo.

Growing up in southern California, my family and I made frequent trips to the Magic Kingdom, and I’d always like to look in on the turkey, sitting proudly in its pen of particular distinction at the Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo (which, for obvious reasons, no longer exists.) While I am not sure the reality of the bird’s living situation, I remember thinking as a child that there could be no better life than being pardoned for Thanksgiving dinner and sent to live out your days in the happiest place on earth.

In any case, I do hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and remember to tip your hat to the bird that symbolizes this tradition of gratitude.


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