In honor of both the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, I think it appropriate to talk a little about a bird that almost became our national symbol, the Wild Turkey. Rather than the splendor and majestic beauty of a Bald Eagle, Benjamin Franklin wanted the National bird of the United States of America to be the Wild Turkey. While we can sit and discuss the merits of noble raptor versus familiar tablebird, none can really question that the Wild Turkey does indeed have special merit, and is a highly respected and prized member of our avifauna.
The Wild Turkey is the only North American member of the pheasant family, although in the Yucatan region of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, it is replaced by the smaller, more brightly-colored Ocellated Turkey, which is named for the peacock like eye-spots on its feathers. While the northern species is widespread, the southern species is rare outside of protected areas within its small range.
Turkeys have been known to Western Europeans since early in the sixteenth century, when Spanish conquerors invaded Mexico. There they found the local people in possession of large domesticated forms of the Wild Turkey. As was quickly discovered, these birds were very edible, and numbers were then transported over the Atlantic into Spain. From there it was quickly introduced into both France and England, where it rapidly found a niche in the daily lives and diet of the people.
Once a common sight throughout the eastern United States, the Wild Turkey has made a huge comeback throughout the Carolinas. From being almost extinct in the state, the Wild Turkey population now stands at well over 200,000 birds. The low count in the early sixties was only 2,000. One of the main reasons for this impressive increase has been the Wild Turkey reintroduction program, organized by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Since 1970, over 3,000 Wild Turkeys have been released on more than 200 restoration sites in North Carolina. They are now found in probably all of the state’s 100 counties, and in all 46 counties in South Carolina, which also has huge numbers of birds in the wild.
The adult Wild Turkey stands over 3 feet tall and can weigh 25 pounds or more. In bursts of flight it can attain speeds approaching 50 mph. The wild food includes acorns, berries, grass-seeds, insects and spilt grain in agricultural fields. In Asheville and many other regions of Western North Carolina, Wild Turkeys are appearing below bird feeders to take advantage of a readily available food supply and becoming very approachable indeed, sometimes even tapping on windows and doors in order to be fed!
Turkey enthusiasts still release additional birds into the forests as part of the Wild Turkey restoration project and it should be remembered that it cheaper to protect plants and animals before they become rare and endangered, rather than wait for a last minute rescue mission. Now that we have indeed brought the Wild Turkey back from the brink, it should become an increasingly common sight throughout both North Carolina and the southeast.