THANKSGIVING MEANS TURKEY TIME

by Whit Gibbons

November 19, 2017

The turkey, a bird that almost went extinct during early settlement days, will soon make an appearance on dining tables across the country. In fact, 88 percent of U.S. households will have turkey for Thanksgiving. For most Americans Thanksgiving would be a hollow holiday without a turkey on the table. Yet despite the ubiquity of this bird, the history of both wild and domesticated turkeys is shrouded in uncertainty. What do we really know about this iconic bird that epitomizes the national holiday?

Several Thanksgiving-oriented questions about turkeys have been debated for decades. Did Benjamin Franklin really propose the wild turkey as the national bird instead of the bald eagle? Some historians claim he made the proposal in a letter to his daughter. Personally, I did not know Ben Franklin even had a daughter, so I’m not sure what to think about that letter. Which president initiated the tradition of pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving? Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy, Reagan? All of them as well as others have been suggested. The balloting would be close in deciding which tale is true.

The following turkey questions are ones with verifiable answers.

Q: I have heard that a group somewhere focuses on promoting turkeys instead of waterfowl, the way Ducks Unlimited does. Is there really a turkey organization?

A: Yes. In fact, there are two, but the members are people, not turkeys. The National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, S.C., is a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1973 with more than a quarter of a million members. The NWTF is “dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of our hunting heritage.” A separate organization, the National Turkey Federation, focuses on promoting consumption of domestic turkeys (the primary source of the big birds at Thanksgiving) and advocating for turkey farmers.

Q: How many wild turkeys are estimated to be in existence today?

A: More than 6 million wild turkeys range from Canada to Mexico. Restoration projects and programs to ensure suitable wildlife habitat have resulted in their return as a key component of our native fauna. Ironically, the present-day success of the species is in large part due to the positive role that regulated hunting has on a popular game species by ensuring the environmental health of habitats and by controlling illegal hunting. Loss of natural habitats is a major threat to native wildlife, both game and nongame. Turkey hunters are strong proponents of maintaining wild areas throughout North America.

Q: With the nationwide efforts to repopulate wild turkeys as a game bird, are they now in every state? Which one has the highest population numbers?

A: Alaska is the only state with no wild turkeys. Fortunately, wild turkeys have returned to the landscape elsewhere, and their numbers today far exceed those of only a few decades ago. Texas is the winner with a half million. Alabama is ranked number 2, with as many as 450,000. Kansas, Wisconsin, Georgia and Missouri have more than 300,000 each. If the bird’s population levels had kept the trajectory they were on following the arrival of the first European settlers, by the beginning of the 21st century we might likely have been remembering them the way we do passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets--as an extinct species whose disappearance could have been prevented.

Q: How many turkeys are eaten at Thanksgiving in the United States?

A: The number of wild turkeys eaten is unknown. We can be certain, however, the number is certainly less than the 40 million-plus domestic turkeys consumed each year on Thanksgiving Day.

Questions about turkeys and Thanksgiving are endless, and one of my favorites about the holiday has nothing to do with ecology. Is it true the song “Jingle Bells” was written by James Pierpont and was originally to be sung at Thanksgiving, not Christmas? If you are not too drowsy after your Thanksgiving feast, take a moment to check out the whole story.

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