Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 619   November 26, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

The story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and of the wild "Turkies" which the Pilgrims hunted to provide meat for the feast is familiar to every American. Today, although very few of us can claim that we had ancestors on the Mayflower, a lot of us imagine that our Thanksgiving bird is descended from those wild turkeys. This is not quite correct.

A century before, in Mexico, the early Spanish adventurers had found Indians raising turkeys around their homes. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, kept them in his famous zoo, it is said, as food for the other animals. It is not known how long those Mexican birds had been tamed and bred but they are the true ancestors of our only domestic animal with an origin in North America.

The Spaniards soon carried them back to Europe where, in several countries, they quickly became a popular fowl and a choice dish for Christmas and other festive occasions. Within a century, a dozen varieties -- copper-colored, dull-black, white, and buff-yellow, for example -- were developed by selective breeding.

Today, turkey raising makes up a large part of the poultry industry in this country and the Great American Bird is to be found in barnyards around the world. Just as American families have become smaller, the favorite present-day variety is small but with lots of white breast meat. The Beltsville Small White developed by the U. S. Department of Agriculture is the result of selective crossing of six domestic varieties and wild turkey stock.

The wild turkeys of the United States and Mexico all belong to a single species with five subspecies, distinguished by small differences in plumage and body proportions, each native to a certain region -- woodlands of the eastern half of this country; swamps of southern Florida, foothills of the Rockies; valley of the Rio Grande, and, the highlands of Mexico, the one which gave rise to our tame turkeys.

A wild tom turkey in the full vigor of his gobblerhood is a sight to behold. He stands three feet high and may weigh 40 pounds. The naked skin of his head and neck is covered with red, white and blue wrinkles, warts and wattles. On the forehead is a fleshy outgrowth dangling jauntily, and on the breast is a long tassel of black feathers -- his "beard". With burnished chestnut and black feathers, he is at his best in spring when parading his charms before a harem of hens. He puffs himself up, gets red in the face, spreads his banded tail into a great fan and, with stiffened wing feathers rumbling as they scrape the ground, struts back and forth.

The hen, more demurely colored than the tom, weighs about half as much and lacks the beard. In spring she makes a nest on the ground -- usually hidden among fallen leaves by a log or brush pile There she lays about a dozen brown speckled eggs which hatch after 28 days of incubation. A day later she leads her chicks out to feed, keeping them together with a throaty call that sounds like "glunk, glunk, glunk". At first their diet is rich in protein -- mainly grasshoppers and other insects. By late summer the young, now called poults, eat more and more vegetable matter. Throughout the rest of the year, they and their parents feed largely on acorns, nuts, weed seeds and grain.

Wild turkeys are great hikers and strong fliers. Wary and nervous, they are constantly on the move in family flocks They range so widely that several thousand acres of protected woodlands are required to satisfy the needs of a single flock. With the cutting of the forests and settlement of the land, followed by over-hunting, they were wiped out of this part of the country a hundred years ago.

Ben Franklin proposed that the turkey be chosen as our national bird.

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