Talking turkey

Talking turkey

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

The turkey has long been an important part of the American way of life, yet the familiar name of this majestic bird has undergone a curious evolution.

When Cortez and his conquistadores conquered the Aztecs in Mexico in 1520, they discovered the Indians had domesticated a very large and interesting fowl. The males of this strange bird strutted about and made peculiar gobbling noises. The Spaniards returned some of these birds to their homeland, and, though they were not aware of it, they provided the world with an asset of far greater value than all the other treasures they took from the Aztecs.

When this New World bird was introduced to Europeans, it was confused with another bird import: the guinea, a native of Africa and the Middle East. In many regions of Europe, the guinea was called a turkey because some of the domesticated stock had originally been obtained from Turkey. Out of all of this confusion, the bird from Mexico usurped the name from its African cousin and became known as the turkey. Today, we have 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 established as a popular domesticated fowl throughout the British Isles and then accompanied the first colonists to New England to serve as food on the voyage and in their new environment

When the first colonies were established and the Mexican bird had eventually reached North America via England, the native eastern wild turkey (a different subspecies or variety) was common in eastern America as far north as Maine and reaching to the vast area to the west. But, as far we know, the native wild turkey was not domesticated, and the Mexican turkeys were the ones that went into the poultry yards of the colonists.

Fortunately for the student of bird lore, the Mexican, domestic turkey and the eastern, native, wild subspecies differ enough in color to be easily differentiated. The Mexican bird and its descendents have white-tipped tail feathers, whereas in the wild turkey, the tips of the tail feathers are brown.

Native wild turkey abounded in the forests of New England, and the early settlers hunted them so relentlessly that the bird became virtually extinct in New England by 1850. As the range of the turkey extended far beyond the Appalachian Mountains, pioneers heading in that direction relentlessly killed turkeys for food as civilization moved west. Thriving populations of this unique fowl were decimated.

Because of unregulated hunting and loss of habitat, wild turkeys were extirpated in Illinois by 1900. However, successful restoration has demonstrated the resourcefulness and adaptability of this bird. Wildlife experts once thought in order to restore turkey populations, extensive tracts of forest were necessary, and Illinois did not qualify, as it is known as the “Prairie State.” That line of reasoning has now been proven to be incorrect, as robust populations of wild turkey exist in areas of the Midwest with less than 20 percent forest cover.

Turkey restoration began in Illinois in 1959 and has now been so successful that re-established populations now exist in almost all 102 counties. Of these, 81 counties are open to turkey hunting, and 1,489 birds were reported harvested in Illinois during the 2002 hunting season, up from 1,414 in 2001 (Winnebago County had only seven kills recorded in 2002, while Boone and Ogle counties did not have a firearm turkey season this year).

Some individuals believe the turkey has little intelligence, but science has shown it is one of the smartest birds around, as any turkey hunter will verify.

If Benjamin Franklin had gotten his way, the wild turkey would have become our national bird instead of the bald eagle. Ben argued that the eagle was a disreputable creature and made its living as a thief, taking food from weaker species (I have personally witnessed a bald eagle harass an osprey so intensely that the osprey finally dropped the fish it was carrying in its talons. The eagle grabbed the osprey’s dinner before it hit the water.)

Franklin argued the wild turkey had none of the eagle’s vices, and besides, it was good to eat. He was, however, not able to convince the founding fathers that the turkey should replace the eagle as our national symbol.

If he had made his pitch in later years, he could have pointed out that the wild turkey is so generally esteemed that, arguably, the finest bourbon whiskey ever made is appropriately 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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