The turkey may not be a thankful bird, but we are thankful for the great American bird.

We show our appreciation each Thanksgiving Day — and on most all other days of the year. The bird holds center stage on the bountiful table where we offer our thanks and gratitude. 

The strutting, gobbling creature with the beautiful fantail plays a prominent role in the history of our republic. The bald eagle is our nation’s strong symbol, but the wild turkey is perhaps the more popular of the two.

The immigrant pilgrims decided in the fall of their founding year in 1621 on the American continent to celebrate the bounty of their first-year crops. They chose the strutting bird to provide the delicious meat. Thus began a tradition that continues down the centuries to our time. 

The wild turkey, however, dates back to the very early period of the North American Indians, long before Columbus discovered America and the pilgrims set foot on our soil. The birds’ delicious meat was an important and abundant food source for those first Americans.

The Muscogee tribe of Indians on the eastern side of our state celebrated turkeys for the delicious meat and for the feathers. The Indians wore turkey cloaks and performed a turkey dance. Knowing that, I can say the tribe held the turkey in the highest regard.

But the Indians were clever. They could out-think the suspicious birds. The Indians used corn kernels to lure the birds into their fence traps made of tree limb. 

Benjamin Franklin, who admired the beauty and wiliness of the wild turkey, wanted the bird to be our national symbol. But the first continental congress chose the independent and determined bald eagle instead as our sign of strength and defiance.

Franklin wrote, “For the truth the turkey is in comparison (to the eagle) a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” So very true from wise Ben.

The turkey, though, was given the bum’s rush out the door and, should I say, into the colonists’ brick ovens. They knew the meat is at its best when roasted.

Because of the coronavirus, extended families may not gather together this Thanksgiving to celebrate. So, Mr. Covid is responsible for disrupting a favorite family tradition and also saving the lives of many of the birds this year.

For me, I’ll miss chatting with family members and guests I haven’t seen for a while, but I don’t want to put a loved one’s health at risk just for good conversation, awesome turkey meat and tasty home-cooked veggies and dessert. 

Getting back to the birds, turkeys are said to be distant cousins of all other game birds in America. An interesting fact. And it’s not like the wild turkeys are in short supply. Whether domesticated or wild, there are more turkeys out there now than ever before.

Today, there are between 400,000 to 450,000 wild turkeys roaming our lands across the state of Alabama. Nationwide, there may be more than seven million — a huge number.

And that fact doesn’t include the thousands of domesticated turkeys raised on farms.

Not too long ago, though, the wild turkey population in our country had been reduced to a concerning 30,000, and the birds faced extinction. But with government help, they made a comeback.

As our nation shifted westward, turkeys served as food for the early settlers who cleared the land for farming and for livestock. By the turn of this century, though, the wild turkey seemed headed to extinction.

Federal and state governments, including Alabama, quickly swung into action and enacted laws to regulate turkey hunting and to raise taxes for turkey conservation.

The Villager ran an article a while back about the state conservation department’s gallant work to bring back the wild turkey, whose numbers were dangerously low. Their efforts have proved successful. 

So, either with your extended family or with a small group or just alone, enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey. We can all be proud that the great American bird will be around for future generations to come, thanks to caring intervention by governments and outdoor federations. 

 

Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email address is r.morris@ctvea.net.

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