By Martha R. Fehl / Photo by MONGO
The turkey is an intelligent and cagey creature. In the fall with a finely tuned sense of danger, they slip through the early morning mist into the woods and prairies searching for food.
Fossil remains dates back to the Mocene deposits of Colorado, and scientists think they may have shared the same time and space with the vegetarian Bronthotherium dinosaurs over 25 million years ago.
Turkeys were found at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Mexico, where Native Americans had long domesticated them. Fowls were part of the prizes shipped back to Spain in 1519, and turkeys spread through trade to the rest of Europe.
Columbus may have been one of the few European to taste turkeys during his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. But long before the discovery of America, natives of Central America and our present day states of Arizona and New Mexico had domesticated flocks in captivity.
The Pilgrims and Indians probably served them often as they were plentiful in the beginning. Pioneers are said to use the wild turkey breast as a substitute for bread. Women believed the fat on the back was better for baking then butter, and used the eggs for making dumplings.
A tom or gobbler turkey has been estimated to be 36 to 48 inches tall, weigh 16 to 20 pounds with a longer neck and legs than the domestic Thanksgiving bird.
The male, of course, sports a beard, a thick tuft of specialized hair-like feathers that sprouts from the middle of the chest and may droop 8 or 9 inches. It will grow throughout a gobbler's life span (six to nine years) until the oldest patriarchs are able to drag it on the ground when feeding.
WHAT THEY EAT
Turkey are omnivorous and eat insects such as grasshoppers, berries, fruit, tubers, seeds and some small vertebrates like frogs, lizards and snakes. When autumn approaches, they dig and scratch for food through fallen leaves leaving raked swatches on the ground.
Whatever a turkey swallows goes into its gizzard, the muscular portion of the stomach that crushes food equal to a 500 pound vise pressure to collapse the contents. They dine well on acorns and hickory nuts here, while in Europe turkeys forage on English walnuts which goes for fattening these bird.
There are six wild varieties of turkey in different parts of the United States, differing primarily in size with slight color variations.
Laying about a dozen yellow-white eggs with brownish spotting and living up to eight years of age, these birds are very capable of making a comeback when proper conservation practices are followed. Although there were few at first, they are making a comeback in the last 40 years.
Besides having found their way into our stomachs, turkeys have also found their way into our vocabulary as in "talk turkey," plays that are "turkeys," "Turkey in the Straw," dancing the turkey trot, attending a turkey shoot, and the color that is referred as turkey red. And of course, there is always the appellation "turkey" used to describe a foolish individual. This last use of the term is probably based upon the behavior of wild gobblers who have been known to attack everything from people to trucks during breeding season.
There are also tales of turkeys drowning because of an inclination not to seek shelter from the rain.
Today we produce 200 million domestic turkeys a year in the United States. If your bird seems overpriced when buying one for the Thanksgiving table, note that one reference mentions $2,000 paid for a 71-pound turkey named "Mr. Chuckle IV" at an auction in 1977.
In 1930, Federal Aid began to restore these wild birds to their earlier habitat, and by 1960, the turkey population leap-frogged to an estimated 4 million turkeys in 49 states, including Hawaii, but none in Alaska. They are now valued for hunting or just for pleasure, and if you are strolling near a woods or out on the prairie, you may hear turkeys talking turkey.