For the Birds Radio Program: Wild Turkey (remastered from 1986)

Original Air Date: Oct. 25, 1989

Wild Turkeys are appearing in increasing numbers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the northland.

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(Recording of a Turkey)

John James Audubon assigned it the place of honor at the beginning of his magnum opus, Birds of America, writing, “The great size and beauty of the Wild Turkey, its value as a delicate and highly prized article of food, and the circumstance of its being the origin of the domestic race now generally dispersed over both continents, render it one of the most interesting of the birds indigenous to the United States of America.” Benjamin Franklin felt it should be America’s national symbol, calling it “withal a true original Native of America.”

Turkeys are truly American natives. Native people domesticated some, and Spanish explorers brought a few of these from Mexico to Spain around 1530. From Spain, domestic turkeys found their way to the Turkish Empire, and from there to much of Europe–the English name is based on the erroneous old belief that they originated somewhere in the Turkish Empire. But the English weren’t the only ones fooled–the German name for this bird is translated as a cock of Calcutta, and both the French and Italian names mean a cock of India. Some of the early settlers must have been confused when they discovered Turkeys here before them.

The Wild Turkey may have been an American native, but it was never native to the Northland. Although it was once abundant in southern Wisconsin, it was extirpated from the whole state by 1900. And it probably never lived in Minnesota at all. Turkeys have been introduced and reintroduced to Wisconsin and Minnesota with enormous success, but if you want to find a turkey in the northland, the grocery store is your best bet, though every now and then one does appear up here.

Butterballs and other such turkeys trace their lineage from the original domestic turkeys that the Spanish explorers took from the Indians. They are bigger, stupider, and clumsier than their wild brothers. In the wild, males average about 16 1/2 pounds, and females about 9 1/2 pounds. They use their legs for scratching the forest litter searching for acorns, nuts, and anything else edible, and are strong runners–this constant use of their legs requires a constant rich blood supply, which translates into dark meat for Thanksgiving dinner. Although flight is only their last means of escape, turkeys can become airborne–in fact, they’ve been clocked at 55 miles per hour. But because the wings, and the attached breast muscles, are so rarely used, they don’t need extra blood vessels and blood supply–which pleases white-meat lovers.

The expression “male chauvinist pig” should probably have been “male chauvinist turkey.” The male makes a huge display for females, strutting and puffing its chest like Arnold Schwartzenneger, its naked, warty head and wattles flushing bright red with excitement. He mates with as many females as he can, and then takes no responsibility for the consequences. Females carefully keep their nesting places hidden from males, which will destroy eggs and chicks that they themselves fathered.

Ogden Nash wrote: “There is nothing more perky/ Than a masculine turkey./ When he struts he struts/ With no ifs or buts./ When his face is apoplectic/ his harem grows hectic,/ And when he gobbles/ Their universe wobbles.”

(Recording of a Turkey)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been, “For the Birds.”