|11/27/2013 9:40:00 AM|
|Wild Turkey - Photo by Don Reimer|
by Don ReimerThe Thanksgiving holiday is an opportune time to consider turkeys. I am not talking about those top-heavy, farm-raised birds that are pardoned and spared from the dinner table each Thanksgiving by the President of the United States. I'm talking about wild stock, the primogenitors of all turkeydom.
Back in 1970, Maine Fish and Wildlife began a successful reintroduction program, and today Wild Turkeys are a customary sight across much of Maine. The Wild Turkey is the largest game bird in the United States, with five subspecies spread across the continent: Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam's and Gould's. These types vary somewhat in relative size and tail band color, and Eastern birds comprise the largest segment of the population. Despite their considerable size, Wild Turkeys can run at speeds up to 25 mph and fly at up to 55 mph.
Wild Turkeys are native to North America, with some interesting historical and geographical twists along the way. The common turkey was tamed between 800 and 200 BC by the people of pre-Columbian Mexico. Up until about 1100 AD, the Pueblo peoples raised turkeys primarily for their feathers for use in rituals, ceremonies and textiles.
Then in the 1500s, European explorers carried wild turkeys back to Europe, where the birds were further domesticated. When early English settlers brought turkeys to Eastern North America a century later, the species crossed the ocean once again.
Wild Turkeys live in hardwood forests and marshlands. Equipped with powerful legs and clawed toes, they are adept at raking through leaf litter and moderate snow depths. Their broad diet includes over 600 types of fruits, nuts, waste grains, grasses and insects. At night, Wild Turkeys roost in trees for shelter and predator protection.
Appearance-wise, the Wild Turkey won't win a beauty contest. Males have blue or gray featherless necks and heads that can shift color according to the bird's emotional state. When angry or during courtship displays, the neck and head turn a radiant red. The male toms are the larger sex that boasts a spikey "beard" of feathers protruding from their mid-chest.
The snood is a fleshy flap that hangs from the beak; prominent bumps on the head and throat are termed carbuncles, while the wattles drape from under the chin. These physical characteristics are far more pronounced in domestic turkeys.
Most commercial turkey farmers breed their birds to have white feathers because white feathers leave no spots on the skin when plucked. Bred exclusively for the table, flightless domestic turkeys are 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat. This differs from their wild relatives, whose breast flesh is darker due to their active flight habits.
Several falls ago, I witnessed a curious episode near Weskeag Marsh, when a sizeable tom turkey that was crossing Buttermilk Lane was struck by a speeding pickup truck. Hearing the dull thud, I saw a burst of black feathers as the truck continued unimpeded up the hill. When I went to remove the carcass from the centerline, two gentlemen in an open-topped sports car came zipping over the rise. A large dog occupied the rear seat. Coming to an abrupt, skidding stop, the driver inquired directly: "Are you going to eat that thing?" "No," I said. The two gents opted to take the dog home and return promptly to retrieve their roadside banquet.
Regardless of your personal banquet menu, have a memorable Thanksgiving.
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