European settlers who came to America found turkeys in southern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. They found turkeys all along the eastern seaboard and in Florida. As explorers traveled west they found turkeys all the way into South Dakota and Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. There were turkeys in Mexico. There the natives had tamed or domesticated turkeys. Domesticated turkeys were taken from Mexico to Spain and from there to France and England.
The wild turkey was common in eastern North America and it was a striking bird, a male nearly four feet long from tip of bill to end of tail, brown with a bronze sheen that shimmered when it puffed out its feathers and spread its tail. Benjamin Franklin proposed that the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, be the official bird of the newly formed United States.
Even then, in the early days of our nation however, the wild turkey was disappearing from much of its original range. In addition to its size and appearance, it was tasty and it was easy to see and shoot. Additionally, it was a woodland bird and its habitat, the forests of the east, then farther and farther west, were being cleared, the land converted to farms. Within a hundred years of the founding of the United States the wild turkey was gone from many states within its original range.
But conditions have changed. Hunting laws have been passed and enforced. Woodlands have actually increased, particularly in the eastern half of the country. People raised and released turkeys and when those game-farm birds failed to become established, people started trapping wild turkeys where they still existed, moving them and releasing them in places where there weren’t any turkeys. New York got turkeys from Pennsylvania. Iowa got turkeys from Missouri and Indiana got turkeys from Iowa.
Now there are wild turkeys in all the states of their original range. There are wild turkeys in states where there originally were no turkeys. There are wild turkeys in all the lower forty-eight states. There are wild turkeys in southern Canada. There are wild turkeys on several of the islands of Hawaii.
Now we have wild turkeys in the woodlands of North America.
We have domestic turkeys on farms. Those domestic turkeys get bigger than the wild birds and some of them are white, but nobody would mistake a turkey, even a white one, for anything else. In “American Game Birds” Frank C. Edminster wrote that the difference between a wild and domestic turkey is that “the wild one is essentially only a streamlined version.”
There are wild turkeys in the state park a few miles from my home. I see some of them sometimes when I go for a walk through the woods there. I see a few in fields near the park now and then. In spring I have heard gobblers calling, letting hens know where they are and inviting the hens to join them. I have seen gobblers displaying, puffed up like giant feather dusters, their tails stuck up and fanned.
I am thrilled whenever I see, or even just hear, a wild turkey. But this is the time of year when I truly indulge myself in turkey. My wife gets one from the grocery store, roasts it with dressing, the family gathers and we have a big family dinner. Then, as we stuff ourselves, indulge ourselves in turkey, we are all thankful for this All American bird.