“I am, on this account, not displeased that the figure is not known as a bald eagle, but looks more like a turkey. For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
~ Excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s Letter to Daughter Sarah Bache,
January 26, 1784
As we approach another Thanksgiving Day, I’d like to take this opportunity to pay homage to that noble and thoroughly American icon, the turkey.
Evolution of the Turkey
The turkey is relatively new to Planet Earth, having evolved only about 11 million years ago during the Middle Miocene Epoch (roughly 16 million-11.6 million years ago). To put this in perspective with human evolution, the remains of what might be the earliest common relative of the Great Apes family (order, Primates), of which we humans are a part, was believed to have also lived a bit earlier during this period, about 15 million years ago, although the first signs of human existence was discovered later, during the Pliocene Epoch (roughly 5.3 million-2.6 million years ago).
Because of the particular predator/prey relationship, turkeys have been part of human lives more so than the American Bald Eagle, with all due respect to the latter. Thus, Dr. Franklin’s assessment makes sense to me.
La Turquía Doméstica
The wild turkey is native to North America, and its domestication began in Mexico, where it has a rich history. Before they became domesticated, wild turkeys were honored and celebrated in the religious festivals by both the Aztecs and the Mayans. Of course, the turkey was an important food source, not only to the Mexican natives, but also to the American Indian Nations. In the West, the Navajos penned the birds so they could fatten them for food, but in the Eastern United States turkeys were hunted in their forest habitats. During the 19th Century wild turkeys were hunted nearly to extinction, with the numbers dipping dangerously low, and not recovering until the early to mid 20th Century.
Today, turkeys are produced in huge numbers to satisfy the American appetite, especially at Thanksgiving. Although some facilities are clean and the turkeys are reportedly treated humanely, there are reports of terrible abuse, particularly of the Butterball turkey — reminiscent of the cruelty involved in prepping geese and ducks to produce foie gras. For this reason, our Thanksgiving table will be honored with a free-range turkey raised on a local farm. Unfortunately, local farm-raised turkeys are pretty pricey, but if you can swing the cost it’s worth it to dine on a turkey that did not suffer its whole life for your moment of pleasure. Meanwhile, we can all take steps to strive for humane treatment of turkeys and all animals that are raised for our consumption. The non-profit organization Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) helps consumers to support such humane and ethical treatment.
How Did the Turkey Get Its Name?
The naming of this noble American seems to have had something to do with Columbus shipping specimens of this fascinating bird back to Europe after encountering it when he arrived in North America in 1492, and it being called a “turkey” because it was shipped to other countries, especially England, from Constantinople (now the modern day Istanbul). A hundred plus years later when the Pilgrims arrived on our shores from England, upon seeing the same bird they quite logically called it by the name with which they were familiar. However, no one explains things better or more entertainingly than Robert Krulwich, so check out his elucidation on the topic.
Out of This World Turkey
No, I’m not talking about a recipe; I mean the first Thanksgiving dinner in outer space occurred in 1973 aboard Skylab. The turkey was reportedly pretty bland due to the digestive restrictions in space, but still enjoyed. However, the first time astronauts actually ate turkey while on a mission was apparently on Christmas 1968 on Apollo 8, on their way to the Moon, where they landed on Sunday, July 20, 1969.
Turkeys vs. Ticks
There is a widely held theory that a reduction in deer tick populations will occur by stocking a gang of turkeys on one’s property. Experts generally don’t agree, however, and a 15-year-old report by the Institute of Ecosystems Studies in Millwood, New York, did not find any such evidence. Wild turkeys do eat ticks and other insects, along with a wide variety of seeds, fruits, millipedes and small reptiles and amphibians. However, many laypeople and some experts believe if turkeys stay in one area for an extended period there is a chance that the tick population will be reduced somewhat.
The Art of Turkeys
- The New Yorker Covers – Turkeys have memorably been on the cover of this publication several times.
- Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell, , is a famous American painting. This and other of Rockwell’s and J. C. Leyendecker‘s paintings were frequently featured in and on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post.
- The Birds of America, Plate 1, Wild Turkey, by John J. Audubon, from his famous book, Birds of America.
- The Turkeys at Montgeron, by Claude Monet
Are Turkeys Smart?
Despite the bad rap turkeys have regarding their brain power, the wild turkey can be as cunning as the Road Runner when outwitting Wile. E. Coyote; at least, that seems be the case according to one hunter’s experiences stalking wild turkeys. And, a study conducted at Oregon State University further debunks the theory that turkeys are not smart. Even the Washington Post has weighed in to set the record straight on the turkey’s IQ! The consensus among many authorities is that wild turkeys are much smarter and more cunning than people realize. And because domestic turkeys are bred for their meat, they are on average twice as heavy as their wild cousins, giving them their comical gate when they run. They try to fly but cannot because of their abnormal weight. This is an example of humans reengineering nature and then making fun of the result! Finally, it’s simply not true that domestic turkeys are stupid when they stare up at the sky, even in the rain; apparently, this is a genetic condition that has nothing to do with brain power.
Tom or Hen on Your Table?
Tom turkeys are larger than hens. Tom’s have bigger bones and less meat than hens, and many experts agree that a hen’s meat is less tough than a tom’s. Generally, hens are smaller; Tom’s are sometimes over 40 lbs. You can ask at the store or farm where you buy your turkey about the gender, or make a request in advance.
The history of the official Presidential pardon of a turkey or two each Thanksgiving might have been fraught with misunderstandings and accidental comments. But, here’s what I have pieced together:
- 1863: According to some historical reports, President Lincoln was presented with a turkey that was intended to be Christmas dinner. But, his son, Tad, befriended and named the turkey, “Jack.” Well, most pet owners know that when you name an animal it becomes not only yours but a part of the family with full member rights and privileges. Thus, Tad begged his father, an animal lover, not to dispatch Jack to the dinner table, and President Lincoln, as most fathers who happen to be the President of the United States would do, spared Jack’s life. Many point to this occurrence as the first Presidential Holiday Turkey Pardon. It would be awhile, though, before this “tradition” kicked in.
- 1873: A sublime specimen of a turkey was presented to President Ulysses S. Grant by Horace Vose, a Rhode Island turkey farmer extraordinaire known as the “poultry king,” initiating a tradition in which he presented subsequent Presidents with a holiday turkey for the next 25 years. But in those early days it was unlikely that the turkey presented wound up anywhere else but on the Presidential dinner table. And, because of its size, reportedly between 30-50 lbs., it was probably a tom. It’s probably a safe bet that there was no pardon involved.
- 1947: The National Turkey Federation began presenting Presidents with turkeys on Thanksgiving, starting with President Harry S. Truman. President Truman was the recipient of two turkeys and said that they would “come in handy for Christmas dinner.” No pardons there, either, apparently.
- 1963: President John F. Kennedy spared the annual Presidential holiday gift turkey from the NTF that arrived the week before Thanksgiving, opting to send it to the farm saying, “We’ll just let this one grow,” and declaring that he wouldn’t eat it. This act was especially poignant, as the President himself did not live to observe Thanksgiving, which was on November 28 that year; he was assassinated on November 22.
- 1989: President George H.W. Bush is credited as the first President officially to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey presented to him by announcing that it had been granted a Presidential pardon. And, every year thereafter, the President currently in The White House is expected to pardon a turkey — and an alternate — to much fanfare in the Rose Garden.
- 2013: Last year, President Obama pardoned two turkeys, Popcorn and his alternate, Caramel, out of 80 birds considered for the “honor.” The President, with his usual dry wit, likened the situation to The Hunger Games.
I love the idea of pardoning turkeys (delicious as they are!), but what happens to the pardoned turkeys? They purportedly do not live long, as turkeys bred solely for food are overly large and their systems cannot support the size of their bodies for long. Such is the reality of food animals. However, an update on Popcorn and Caramel reports that although Popcorn died of “natural” causes, Caramel is doing fine, has actually lost weight and is living an active and pampered life!
A New View of Vegetarianism
If this entry has you thinking about becoming a vegetarian, there is an additional benefit that has come to light that you might want to investigate further. That benefit is a healthier environment by reducing your carbon footprint. If not, it’s my hope that your understanding of and respect for turkeys — and all food animals — has been enhanced!
Our Fellow Americans
This Thursday, when you are enjoying your turkey dinner, please remember the history of our noble turkey and the journey she or he took to get to your table. We owe it to these fellow Americans, whether wild or domestic, to regard them with kindness, respect, ethical treatment and gratitude.
Whoever you’re with, however you’re celebrating and whatever you’re eating, have a wonderful, warm and empathetic holiday.
Until next time,