Benjamin Franklin famously believed that the national bird of the United States should be the wild turkey. Of course, he also thought the rattlesnake would be a good symbol for the new country; because this is a bird blog, we’ll let that go.
In a letter to his daughter Franklin wrote about the bald eagle,
He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
On the other hand, Franklin asserted,
For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.
Franklin was right about the turkey being a native of North America. It has been here a long time. Because of its large size and historical use as human food, the turkey has a good fossil record. Fossils have been found as far back as the Miocene and the Pleistocene in North America. Archeology established long ago that many subsistence cultures ate them.
Hunting them must have been a challenge to those early hunters. Franklin aside, the birds are extremely wary; no wild turkey would have attacked a British Grenadier. But it would have seen and heard that Red Coat coming from miles away and fled. Wild turkeys possess keen eyesight and exquisite hearing which makes them hunting challenges even for their primary modern predator, humans. Males prefer running away; females, flying. Both can fly and at speeds up to 50mph.
That turkey in your kitchen for this Thanksgiving is a pale imitation of the real thing. Because of the popularity of white meat — white because it is different muscle with less ability to store oxygen than dark muscle — your turkey was bred for a large breast. In fact, domesticated turkeys raised for food have such large breasts they are incapable of mounting females for the cloacal kiss. Instead the males are artificially manipulated and then milked for their semen which is then injected into the females to fertilize their eggs. Confined to quarters, these domesticated turkeys are tricked by artificial light into breeding year round so that the supply, especially now, is adequate. Far too heavy for flight, it could never have escaped a British soldier.
But even though that Broad-breasted White Turkey you cut into this Thanksgiving is not the same as his wild, shrewd cousin, you partake of a North American tradition far older than Thanksgiving.
If you need any help carving a turkey, here is a video of a pretty good way to do it.