MTPR

'Field Notes' Talks Turkey

Nov 20, 2017

In those early days of the young republic, hunters would come back with reports of seeing a 1,000 turkeys in one day, often in flocks of as many as 200 birds. Yet from an estimated population of perhaps 10 million, the numbers of wild turkeys dwindled as unrestricted hunting increased and their woodland habitat was cleared to make way for homesteaders. By the 1940s there were only some 30,000 wild turkeys left in a fraction of their former range. 

I had my first up close and personal encounter with a real live turkey this year while walking through a wooded portion of a friend’s ranch in the foothills of the Big Belt Mountains. Nothing too exciting happened - the bird and I stood and looked at each other for a time, and then went on about our business.

But now that it’s Thanksgiving week and we are thinking about turkeys in a different context, I’m reminded of seeing that wild bird and found this appropriate Field Note.

The name “turkey” apparently derives from a misconception at some point that the bird originally came from the country of Turkey. However, turkeys actually are native to the western hemisphere and were first imported east into Spain from Mexico in the 16th century. Their domestication and popularity as food subsequently spread throughout Europe, and it is thought that some turkeys were brought back to the Americas by English colonists who were unaware of the bird’s true native place.

Evidently turkey was not the featured culinary centerpiece at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 as it is today. Records indicate that a few were eaten at Plymouth during that first Harvest Home celebration, though more prominently featured were cod, bass, shellfish, waterfowl and venison.

Turkeys could have been found along the shores of Cape Cod Bay at that time, since they were plentiful, but having a menu centered around a wondrous big stuffed turkey did not become popular until much later, in the early 1800s.

In those early days of the young republic, hunters would come back with reports of seeing a thousand turkeys in one day, often in flocks of as many as 200 birds. Yet from an estimated population of perhaps 10 million, the numbers of wild turkeys dwindled as unrestricted hunting increased and their woodland habitat was cleared to make way for homesteaders. By the 1940s there were only some 30,000 wild turkeys left in a fraction of their former range.

Although never native to Montana, turkeys were introduced here in the 1950s when national conservation efforts were mounted to save the species. Such efforts have been largely successful and the wild turkey population in the U.S. now exceeds 3 million. However, here in Montana conditions are harsh enough that turkeys simply do not do all that well compared to other places. Of the populations that do survive, most tend to be tied closely to human habitation where food is readily available.

So if a turkey adorns your table on this occasion of Thanksgiving, remember the origin of this truly American species and the history of these wild and wary birds.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 11/22/15. Listen on air or online Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)