A magnificent bird

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, many of us associate the holiday with the turkey. My thoughts also dwell upon the turkey, but not as the entree at the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, I recall a late afternoon, some decades ago, when the Deputy Commandant of the Medical Field Service School at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, and I were crouching in a hunting blind at Camp Bullis, a 40,000 acre training annex to the main military post.

The Deputy Commandant was an avid hunter, but he had never bagged a wild turkey. Consequently, he had enlisted my assistance to guide him to one, as I knew the habits and home ranges of the game animals that prowled the Camp Bullis area. I had previously recognized an area of a winding creek as a spot where a turkey flock watered every evening, and that particular evening was no exception.

A magnificent tom turkey soon appeared leading his flock of hens to the watering hole, and I said, “Now, general, take him!” The general quickly aligned the bird in his telescopic sight, but, curiously, he did not fire. Rather, he lowered his rifle and said, “I just cannot kill such a magnificent bird.” It was the moment of truth, and if there ever was an authentic “Beau Geste,” this was it. Though I had always admired the one-star general, my respect for his character went up several notches.

The turkey has long been an important part of the American way of life, yet the name of this impressive bird has undergone a curious evolution. When Cortez and his conquistadors invaded Mexico, they found the Aztecs had tamed a remarkable fowl. The large males strutted about and made peculiar gobbling noises. Some of the birds were shipped home and were confused by Europeans with another import, the guinea, a native of Africa. In some regions of Europe, a guinea was called a turkey because some of the original stock had been obtained in Turkey.

Out of this confusion, the bird from Mexico usurped the name from its African cousin and became known as the turkey. We have today a bird of new world origin with an inappropriate old world name.

From Spain, the turkey is said to have reached England as early as 1541. It soon became popular as a domestic fowl and thence accompanied the colonists to New England to serve as food on their voyages and in their new homes. At the time the bird of Mexican origin reached North America from England, the native eastern wild turkey (a different subspecies) was common from Georgia to Maine to the Mississippi but had not been domesticated, and it was the Mexican variety that went into the poultry yards. There is no way to determine if the turkey served at the pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving dinner was an imported or native bird.

Fortunately, for the student of bird lore, distinguishing characteristics exist between the two. The Mexican bird and its domestic descendents have white-tipped tail feathers, whereas in the eastern wild turkey the tips of the tail feathers are brown.

Native wild turkeys abounded in the forest of the eastern and midwestern United States, and the settlers hunted them so relentlessly that by 1850 the bird was virtually extinct in the New England states. Its numbers were perilously low in all parts of its range by 1900. State and federal restocking programs over the years have restored the wild turkey’s numbers to a point where annual hunting seasons are authorized. The restocking and restoration programs in Illinois began in 1959 and have been so successful that turkey hunting is permitted in 81 counties. Wild turkeys are relatively common in Winnebago County.

If Ben Franklin had gotten his way, the wild turkey would have become our national bird. Franklin argued that the bald eagle was a disreputable creature that made its living as a thief, stealing food from weaker species. Ben contended the turkey had none of the eagle’s vices, and, besides it was good to eat. If Franklin had lived in more modern times, he could have pointed out that, arguably, the best bourbon whiskey is named “Wild Turkey.”

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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