There are turkeys, and then there are turkeys. One dictionary’s definitions include:
“A person considered inept or undesirable,” and “A failure, especially a failed theatrical production or movie.”Then there’s “talking turkey,” “cold turkey,” and “turkey trot.” Of course, as birders, we think of turkeys as yet another species to be found while out birding. But even this avian sort of turkey comes in two varieties. The birds we commonly consume at Thanksgiving have little in common with their noble ancestors.
Wild Turkeys are well adapted to life in North America. They have plumage that blends perfectly with the oranges and browns of autumn leaves. This makes them hard to spot as they forage for seeds and grubs in the underbrush. Additionally, their hearing and eyesight are both very sharp, alerting flocks to potential predators—and birders. Finally, if you do manage to spot a turkey, don’t scare it. When alarmed, they can flee at 25 mph, leaving us in the dust.
Even with their remarkable survival abilities, by 1930, hunters had reduced the American population to fewer than 30,000 birds. Conservation practices were begun, and the turkey eventually was reintroduced into areas where it had been hunted to extinction. Today, there are plenty of turkeys for both hunters and birders.
Like other so-called “game birds,” turkeys put on elaborate courtship displays. “A wild turkey can change his whole head from red to blue in minutes. For the pièce de résistance, he fans out his tail and puffs up his body feathers to look huge and round—and there’s your classic Thanksgiving icon. But only wild male turkeys look like this, and then only when they’re in the mood for love.”*
The Aztecs were the first to raise turkeys. By the time the conquistadores arrived, most indigenous Americans ate turkey as a staple part of their diets. Columbus was so impressed by the meat he sampled that he brought several specimens home with him to Spain. There, the nobility preferred turkey to the stringier meat of pheasants and peacocks, and turkey popularity spread. Europeans selected for turkeys having traits desirable to market growers, such as large size, quick growth, and tender meat. The pilgrims brought some of these domesticated turkeys with them on the Mayflower, completing the circle.
Contrast these untamed birds with their pathetic, commercially-raised, counterparts. Today’s farm industry delivers a product that bears little resemblance to the turkey in our field guides. The most common domesticated turkey breed is the Broad-breasted White, developed in the 1950s. Their white feathers provide no camouflage, but they do result in a skin color more appealing to consumers. While wild turkeys may weigh as much as 24 lbs., the largest domestic turkey on record topped the scales at 75 lbs.! Even when smaller, they are too large to fly, or even to run.
The males no longer perform elaborate courtship displays. Maybe they know it’s hopeless. The tom’s barrel chest gets in the way, and they are physically unable to get close enough to mate with the females. Now it’s all about artificial insemination.
During the selection process, turkeys were bred for passivity rather than brains. When it became apparent around 1900 that wild turkeys were becoming endangered, some domestic turkeys were released into the care of Mother Nature, in hopes that they would shore up the native stock. “But the domestic birds simply stood wherever they had been released, waiting to be fed. If a predator didn’t get them, they just starved to death.”* According to the book Wild Turkey, Tame Turkey, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, “…tame turkeys have been known to die in a downpour.” I don’t know about you, but I feel somewhat better knowing the bird I’m dining on really didn’t have much of a brain to begin with.
* Quotes taken from Meat on Legs: The Story of the Turkey,