For the Birds Radio Program: Columbus Day
Today banks and federal offices are closed all around the United States to commemorate Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America is rather like a child’s discovery of a new word, like “awesome.” It was there all along, being used and appreciated by countless people in the know, but as soon as the media started hyping it up, suddenly both the word and the continent just weren’t the same anymore.
People in the know had been in America for thousands of years before Columbus, the original accidental tourist, stumbled upon it. And people in the know were aware of the avian riches of America long before European immigrants and traders ever dreamed of a “new world.” Native people used the feathers and beaks of all kinds of birds, including the now virtually extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker and California Condor, in their ornamental dress. They feasted on multitudes of Passenger Pigeons and used swan and goose skins for warmth and comfort. There was plenty for everyone.
There were also plenty of feathered riches to trade with early explorers. Ancient American cultures had domesticated the Wild Turkey millennia before, probably first near Oaxaca in Mexico. When the Spanish conquistadors learned of these enormous delicacies, they were ecstatic, and shipped hundreds across the ocean. The English didn’t learn of the turkey directly from the Spanish–they traded for them in the Middle East. Turkeys were so popular with traders that they made it all the way to England by 1532. They were first listed on Christmas menus in 1585. A William Strickland of Yorkshire probably first introduced the turkey to the British, because he was allowed to incorporate a turkey cock on his family crest. A cookbook published in 1541 by Archbishop Cranmer mentioned the turkey.
Since the British trade route for obtaining turkeys was from the Middle East, that is where the British believed the birds originated. Imagine the surprise of early British settlers when they found these delicious birds strutting through every Virginia woodlot. That’s why Benjamin Franklin, who believed money was more powerful than mere symbolism, wanted the turkey for our national emblem.
Turkeys, like so many other natural riches in this land of seemingly endless abundance, were squandered by the settlers. The most dramatic change took place between 1800 and 1950, when the population plummeted from an estimated ten million individuals found throughout the southeastern third of the United States to a small remnant population totaling less than 300,000 by 1950. They were destroyed by overhunting and habitat destruction at the same time. And, to add to their woes, chestnut blight destroyed their most important food item in the same way that Dutch elm disease is now destroying the nesting trees of orioles. Fortunately, turkeys also eat beechnuts, acorns, and other mast, and where they are given reasonable protection and decent habitat, are staging a comeback in many places. As a matter of fact, you can now find turkeys in Minnesota, where they were never even heard of in the days before Columbus. Perhaps this time around, the descendants of immigrants will take as good care of turkeys as people in the know did since time immemorial.