The wild turkey the early Europeans and colonists
encountered was not the bird that dominates 20th-century hunters'
talk. In anecdote after anecdote from the 17th through the 19th
centuries, the wild turkey was characterized as showing an almost
Disneylike friendliness towards people. Wild turkeys, as the
first settlers found them, walked right up to them. Sadly, the
birds were likely to be met with a bang for their bravery. Here
are some examples of early encounters between Man and the Bird as
told by the settlers.
"Wild turkeys drinking at the river were so undisturbed by a
nearby hunter that he took away their broods of chicks without
difficulty." "They came so close to people they could be shot
with a pistol." "They hovered close to our fire so we killed them
all." "Wild turkeys would come to our house and roost in the
trees with the chickens. They often sat with their young on my
fences so trustingly that I found it difficult to bring myself to
While these wild turkeys were alert, wary, savvy, and fully
capable of living successfully in a natural environment, they had
not yet learned to live in terror of humans. The terrified turkey
was created, not born.
Indeed, the wild turkey of today is in many ways an
invention that raises questions about the notion of "wild."
Restoration of decimated turkey populations in North America has
involved extensive manipulations of both the bird and its
habitat: supplemental winter feeding including a variety of
special types of feeders and shelters, burning of forests and
planting of grain crops, wing-clipping, artificial incubation,
culling of captive-raised birds to conform to shifting standards
of "purity" and "wildness," transfer of pen-raised young and
wild-captured adults from one place to another using traps, nets,
airplane drops and immobilizing drugs, and release of thousands
of game-farm hybrid turkeys prior to hunting season.
In the history of human and turkey relations, a combination
of direct human interventions, random matings, and turkey escapes
and vanishings has resulted in wildness "tainted with domestic
blood" and introduction of diseases to wild turkey populations.
Today, at the start of a new century, despite a tremendous
effort to create a "wild" turkey distinct from its domestic
cousins, this noble nomad keeps returning to the human scene,
walking around in suburbia, metropolitan Atlanta, the Bronx.
This is delightful, unless it becomes an excuse for more
hunting, as in the past it was a reason why the friendly and
inquisitive turkey became a byword for an easy target, "someone
who could be easily duped or caught," in the first place.
However, things are starting to change.
Slowly but surely, the sentiment of sentience is winning out
in our society over contempt for animals, of which the turkey has
been a powerful if ambiguous symbol in America. Because of the
bird's mythic role in American history, the turkey comes loaded
with an ambivalence that is starting to work to the bird's
advantage, as well as to ours. Just as the wild bird and the
domestic bird amalgamate in the popular image and the DNA of the
Thanksgiving Turkey, so left-handedly honored, so the turkey,
which has functioned primarily as a sport and a sacrifice, is
increasingly being given a new role, being "adopted" by people
and treated as a guest at the Thanksgiving table, showing there
may be better ways of honoring kinship and exorcising our guilt--
if guilt is involved--than by saying, over and over, "I'm sorry."
More and more Americans are throwing taboo to the winds and
speaking up for turkeys, loving them, maybe, for who they are as
much as for what they might stand for.
Increasingly, unanimous deprecation and consumption of the
turkey can no longer be counted on to pull America together at
Thanksgiving. A new consciousness of human-animal kinship is
arising and new culinary opportunities are emerging. The news
about eating animal products is not good in any case. Because of
how they are raised, turkeys and other poultry go to slaughter
infested with disease organisms including salmonella and
campylobacter bacteria. According to the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, "Foods most likely to carry pathogens [disease
microbes] are high-protein, nonacid foods, such as meat, poultry,
seafood, dairy products, and eggs" (USDA FoodReview, May-August
1995). Significantly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows
turkey slaughter to be down 4 percent in 1999 over the previous
year, reflecting declining consumer purchases (USDA Agricultural
Celebration can include evolution. Just as western culture
long ago substituted bread and wine for animal (and human)
sacrifice in traditional religious celebrations, as in the
Christian Eucharist, literally a "thanksgiving," so the tofu
turkey and thousands of other nonanimal food choices are
replacing the traditional corpse at the festive meal. If bread is
not literally muscle tissue and wine is not blood, few people are
clamoring for a return to the "good old days" of bloody altars
and struggling victims. In this same tradition of progress, the
New American Pioneers are carving out fresh places for humans and
turkeys to come together in a spirit of friendship. This, after
all, is the true gift that the turkey brought to the table in the
first place. Let us rejoice with our feathered friends.
Copyright UPC. This article appeared in newspapers around the country in
November 1999 through the Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Service, to whom
we are very grateful. Individuals, organizations, & news media have full
permission to copy & reprint and are encouraged to do so.
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