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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • A brief history of a favorite holiday bird

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  • Thousands of turkeys are served for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, but grocery stores didn't always exist, and yet turkeys were gratefully dined on while praise for the hunter filled the room or cabin.
    So, have you ever wondered how long wild turkeys have been around America?
    Spanish explorers discovered Mexico in 1517, and on this expedition they discovered large numbers of turkeys.
    The men took careful notes and documented every detail of the New World, but failed to tell us whether they found wild turkeys or domestic turkeys.
    Because of this oversight, some historians credit Christopher Columbus as the first European to lay eyes on a wild turkey during his fourth voyage.
    The fact that there are two turkeys wild and domestic - leads to a series of confusing questions.
    During the weeks leading to Thanksgiving, the National Wild Turkey Federation, a conservation organization instrumental in restoring North America's wild turkey populations, receives an incredible number of calls and e-mails about the differences between the two.
    Why are there two kinds of turkeys? What's the difference? And where do domestic turkeys come from in the first place?
    Tale of two turkeys
    Both turkeys were common in Mexico in the 16th century. Historians know that Indian tribes in Mexico, particularly the Aztec Indians, were skilled at hunting wild turkeys and capturing and domesticating some of them.
    Those domesticated wild turkeys evolved over time, learning to rely on humans and becoming tame.
    Domesticating plants and animals emerged, more or less, as groups of hunters and gatherers evolved into farmers and stockbreeders.
    Domesticating turkeys was a choice of convenience, a way to fence in dinner.
    How long turkeys existed in North America before European explorers discovered the New World is uncertain.
    It is certain, however, that North America's native bird has five centuries of recorded history.
    In spite of all the questions, one thing has always been certain – people like to eat turkeys.
    Its meat was once reserved for the elite, and in 16th century Mexico, some towns only allowed lords to eat turkeys.
    When comparing the two birds, the wild turkey is better known for its physical attributes and attitude.
    Centuries ago, after seeing a turkey for the first time, an East Indian emperor was fascinated by the wild turkey's attitude of self-importance.
    Tom Kelly, a longtime turkey hunter and outdoor writer, declared the wild bird the epitome of grace.
    “His neck stretched out, he looks long and lean and quick – putting every foot down as if he is walking on egg shells,” Kelly said. “When he is most impressive is when he's coming to your call, and he gets within 30 or 40 yards and thinks there's a girl (hen) in sight.”
    Page 2 of 2 - On Thanksgiving, you may stop to consider the domestic bird before you.
    Basted and stuffed, he is not the same as the wild bird often depicted, sometimes standing beside humble pilgrims, in many commercialized Thanksgiving images.
    Physical traits
    Domestic turkeys can't fly or run very fast.
    They would make easy pickings for any predator found in the wild. Their neck skin, or wattles, is heavier.
    Snoods, the finger-like appendage that hangs over the bill, are longer and their breasts much larger and broader. The domestic bird also possesses a temperament suited to confinement.
    Wild turkeys are sleek, alert and built for speed and survival. Their senses are sharpened through generations of living in a harsh, unforgiving environment. A wild turkey that loses its caution will likely be eaten by predators.
    This constant state of caution has made the wild turkey one of the toughest game animals in the world to hunt or photograph.
    Male domestic turkeys tend to be vocal and will respond with a squeaky gobble to almost any noise.
    Male wild turkeys do not gobble as often as domestic turkeys. They've learned that too much talking can call in things other than turkeys, like predators and hunters. Skill and lots of practice are required for a hunter to call in an elusive wild turkey gobbler.
    Female domestic and wild turkeys use similar calls, including the yelp, cutt, purr and kee-kee.
    For a full menu of facts about wild turkey history, restoration and biology, visit www.nwtf.org/all_about_turkeys/.
    -Kenneth L. Kieser is a local outdoor enthusiast.
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