John Adams: [insistently] The eagle!
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The eagle.
- 1776, the Musical
My theory is that it's only incidental that humans find turkeys to be delicious. That had nothing to do with why, thousands of years ago, we started hunting them. Instead, I suspect it was a matter of self-defense.
Turkeys are some mean-as-hell birds.
I've taken care of wild turkeys, in a native species exhibit (and have observed them in the wild on several occasions), and I've taken care of their domestic kin in barnyard exhibits. There are some key differences. Wild turkeys are sleeker, faster, warier. Domestics, having been bred for meat, are far more massive and cumbersome. Domestic turkeys plod along like avian cows. Wild ones slip in and out of the trees like the feathery dinosaurs they are, all before exploding into rapid flight... something that domestic turkeys are also not likely to do.
Domestic or wild though, few animals are nastier than a male turkey. Whenever I see a Presidential Pardon ceremony, where the POTUS shakes the claw of a turkey before sending it off to some petting zoo somewhere, I wonder if the Secret Service agents nearby know how likely it is that they might have to fire on that bird if someone even blinks funny.
There's a reason Papa Franklin wanted the turkey as our national bird. Eagles are pushovers. If I'd been an English soldier in 1780's America and I'd seen a regiment of turkeys waiting for me at the top of Bunker Hill, my red uniform pants wouldn't be red for too long.
At one zoo were I worked, we had lots of free-roaming birds in our barnyard. Chickens, guineafowl, and the obligatory free roaming peafowl. We tried adding turkeys to the mix. Soon we had a trail of sobbing, terrified children scattered in the birds' wake, and blood was drawn from keepers before we hastily re-corralled them. At another zoo, we went in with wolves, alligators, and other predators on a daily basis. We shifted the turkeys. Fortunately, turkeys are also pretty stupid, which does make them easy to outwit if you can keep the distance between you.
Turkeys are still fairly awesome animals, even if you get past the meanness. They join llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, and the Muscovy duck as being animals that were uniquely domesticated in the New World before Columbus and company showed up (the Native Americas also had dogs). They were a fixture food-source in the Aztec Empire, and not just for humans; Montezuma II's royal menagerie went through three hundred turkeys A DAY to feed his jaguars, pumas, wolves, and other predators. The name "turkey" is a mystery in itself, and we're not completely sure how a country in western Asia lent its name to a bird from the New World. It's possibly that it was just because it sounded exotic - guinea pigs aren't from Guinea, Muscovy ducks aren't from Moscow, and macaws aren't from Macao, after all.
The turkey may have lost out to the bald eagle for the title of national bird, but the two do have one thing in common. Both are remarkable comeback stories. Like bald eagles, wild turkeys vanished over much of their range, largely due to overhunting. Today they've had a remarkable resurgence and can be commonly encountered in many forested areas. They're tough birds, after all.
As November approaches, it's inevitable that I hear visitors make jokes about Thanksgiving dinner when they see our turkeys. To which I always want to reply, go ahead, cross that fence. We'll see who has who for dinner.