Updated: Nov 21
The story behind one of our most iconic holiday birds.
In honor of Thanksgiving, let us take a moment to give thanks to one of the most iconic of our North American birds, the turkey. As a wild species, that plays a crucial role in the stability of our ecosystem, and as a domesticated food source, turkeys are an irreplaceable species that were once driven to the brink of extinction in the Northeast.
Nature v. Nurture
To start this story, it is important to differentiate between the two main categories of turkeys will be discussing in further detail. The turkeys we see wandering throughout our yards, forests and fields are wild turkeys (pictured above). Born and raised in the wild, these birds spend their lives foraging in fields, woodlands and the occasional backyard bird feeder. These turkeys are quite different from the ones that usually end up on our dinner table for Thanksgiving and other holidays (with the exception of those that are taken during the now, well-established wild turkey hunting season by hunters throughout North America). The domesticated turkey, that is now farm raised throughout the country, has been selectively bred for a variety of traits that we will touch on momentarily.
Now that we have established a differentiation between wild and domesticated turkeys, let's jump right in and talk about the storied history of these amazing birds.
The Domestic Turkey
Turkeys originated right here in North American and have inhabited the continent for around 20 million years, sharing a distant relative with pheasant, grouse and other fowl species. It was the native peoples of Central America (modern day Mexico most heavily) that first domesticated the turkey. Some records put the date of earliest turkey domestication around 1,500 years ago!
When domesticating an animal species for use as a food source, there are a few traits that are strategically bred to bring about a species with a high quality meat yield in addition to ease of care. Over generations, these domesticated turkeys developed meatier breasts, shorter legs and eventually lost the ability to fly all together. Believe it or not, their wild cousins are impressive fliers despite their wing-to-body ratio. Wild turkeys also roost in trees overnight, often shockingly high in the forest canopy.
These domesticated turkeys that were unable to fly were mush easier to keep in pens and offered up a hearty meal when the time came. These domesticated turkeys were a consistent and plentiful source of food for the native people of Central America and later, the early Spanish occupiers that showed up from across the sea. Prizing these turkeys as a food source and learning how to properly care for them from native peoples, Spanish conquistadores brought the domestic turkey with them upon return to Europe around 1519. It was only a few decades before the domestic turkey became common throughout the entirety of Europe.
A Return Home
The domestic turkey, despite having originated right here in the Americas, never made it further north than the very southern extents of the modern day United States. It wasn't until European settlers landed on the shores of the Eastern United States, bringing with them a variety of domestic animal species, that the domestic turkey made a return to the Americas and found a new home here in the Eastern U.S.
The settlers of the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies had long been caring for domestic turkeys but the turkey interestingly is thought to not have actually been the main course for the now famous 1621 meal Massachusetts Bay colonists shared with local Native American tribesmen/women. It wasn't until the 1800's that turkey consistently became the centerpiece for Thanksgiving meals throughout the country!
The Wild Cousins - Highs and Lows
Throughout this timeline, the domesticated turkey's wild cousins continued their existence in relative stability throughout Central America, Western, Southern and Eastern United States as well as Southern Canada. Native Americans throughout these regions sustainably harvested wild turkeys as a source of food and turkeys played crucial roles in regional ecosystems through insect control and seed dispersal.
It was not until European settlement of North America began to spread throughout Eastern North America that the wild turkey populations faced their first major threats. As settlers moved inland from the coasts, they began to both clear land for agriculture and hunt native wild turkey populations in increasing numbers. Through the clear cutting of forests and taming of wild lands (for both settlements, crop land and pasture land) we quickly disrupted natural areas that had only been minimally managed by Native Americans throughout their millennia of growth. This disruption led to a steady decline in otherwise healthy native species populations, the turkey included.
It was hunting, the uncontrolled and unsustainable hunting particularly, of wild turkeys that brought them to the brink of extirpation (regional extinction) throughout much of their range. Here in the Northeast, uncontrolled hunting practices devastated native turkey populations.
By 1813, Connecticut had already lost the last of its wild turkeys. The last wild turkeys in Vermont were spotted in 1842. By 1850, the wild turkey was nearly a species of the past throughout most of the New England.
The Big Bounce Back
It was not until the 1940's that conservationists first took up the cause of the wild turkey. With numbers continuing to plummet throughout their eastern range, it became clear that if action was not taken, the wild turkey would soon go the way of the dodo - only to be seen in books or museums by later generations.
By this time, many agricultural areas throughout the Northeast were abandoned, with early successional forests taking their place. Farmers looked westward towards the fertile plains. These successional forests provided a habitat perfectly fit for species like the turkey.
Relocation was the conservation effort of choice for conservationists and biologists tasked with bringing wild turkeys back from the brink. Wild turkeys were trapped, relocated and in a few cases, bred in captivity for release to the wild.
Starting in the 1960's and continuing into the following decades, relocation efforts were in full swing to try and help New England turkey populations rebound. Massachusetts captured 37 Wild Turkeys from New York’s Adirondacks in the 1970s and released them in the Berkshires. Vermont relocated 31 New York turkeys in the mid-1960s, and Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire participated in similar programs.
It took these relocated turkeys an incredibly short amount of time to thrive when released here in New England. Turkey populations are now estimated to number over 60,000 here in Maine, 40,000 in neighboring New Hampshire, 40,000 in Vermont and slightly over 25,000 in Massachusetts according to Chris Bernier of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
The wild turkey has now bounced back to a level that makes their presence commonplace for most New Englanders. A well-regulated hunting season has long been in place and these birds are once again, very much a piece of the fabric of our natural world regionally.
With such an incredible rebound comes new challenges. One of those challenges is human/turkey coexistence. Increased numbers means increased potential for negative interactions.
There are a few things that you can do to help cut down on these potentially troublesome encounters. The first is general wildlife awareness. By general awareness, I refer to the common sense logic that wild animals are just that, wild. It is important to remember that to a wild animal, turkeys included, we are predators that pose a threat. If wild animals feel threatened, are cornered, or most often... feel their young are in danger, they will and often do retaliate. With all wild animals, it is best to respectfully observe them from a distance and only intervene when absolutely necessary.
To decrease the amount of car collisions with wild animals, we can both drive attentively and be sure to never throw any food scraps from our car windows. When rubbish and food scraps end up along roadsides, we are then attracting wild animals like turkeys to those roads. Keep our roads clean and our wildlife safe!
I think it is only appropriate to sign off with a huge thank you to our turkeys, domestic and wild. Whether they are helping keep the balance of our ecosystem or blessing us with sustenance, turkeys have long played a role in our relationship with this continent and luckily will for generations to come.
With thanks, we salute to noble turkey. Enjoy your Thanksgiving meal this year and be conscious of the many plants and animals, turkeys most especially, that made it all possible.
How Wild Turkeys Took Over New England. Brian Abbott, 2018. https://www.audubon.org/news/how-wild-turkeys-took-over-new-england
History of the Wild Turkey in North America. James Earl, Mary C. Kennamer & Ron Brenneman. National Wild Turkey Federation. https://www.mdwfp.com/media/4016/historywildturkeynorthamerica.pdf