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Wild Turkey up close, Meleagris gallopavo
Photo © 2003 Nancy Smolak. All rights reserved

A Short Social History of the Wild Turkey

Meleagris gallopavo

The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a true Native American. One of only two species in its genus (the other is the Ocellated Turkey found only in the Yucatan peninsula) the six recognized subspecies of the Wild Turkey range from the Canadian border south into Mexico.

According to folklore when the choice of our national symbol arose during a session of the Continental Congress Ben Franklin bucked the near unanimous clamor for the imperial Eagle (which he felt smacked of the tyranny of ancient Rome) and nominated the Wild Turkey instead citing its modesty, alertness, self-reliance and ability to live off the land - all traits he felt were far superior to the scavenging, bullying eagle and more in keeping with spirit of the Republic he and his fellow delegates were hoping to establish. If Franklin ever actually said the words that are credited to him (I've never seen any documentation or citation on this matter) then it shows that he was a shrewd observer of our native wildlife.

At the time of first European contact Wild Turkeys were incredibly abundant thanks in part to curtailed hunting by resident Indian tribes (who regarded Turkeys as starvation food and fit hunting only for children, women and Europeans) and Indian land management practices. Like the later European immigrants the Indians of the eastern US were at constant war with the forest and continually set fires to clear the land of trees in order to create grasslands to feed elk, deer and - further west in our area - bison. These fires opened up clearings and removed undergrowth from forests which stubbornly refused to burn creating ideal habitat for Wild Turkeys who responded by increasing their numbers dramatically.

A further reason for the Indians' reluctance to hunt these birds for meat was their utility for other purposes - principally their feathers and their position as spiritual symbols. According to early accounts turkeys were run down and captured alive only to suffer the indignity of having their feathers plucked from their tails and breasts. The feathers - regarded by most eastern tribes as powerful medicine - were symbols of wisdom as well as the raw material for lightweight but extremely warm winter cloaks. Young pullets were also captured in the forests and reared in the village long enough to supply feathers for these cloaks. Early explorers often commented on the small flocks of young birds found in the vicinity of Indian villages and sometimes mentioned the Indians' reluctance to kill them for food which they found puzzling.

Wild Turkey cock, Meleagris gallopavo
Photo © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved

The birds themselves were regarded as powerful spirit warriors. The long, hairlike tuft of feathers hanging from the breast of the male was likened to a scalp hanging from the turkey's belt. Many tribes considered the turkey a shamanistic medium between the powerful sky spirits and the earth. As birds that seldom flew they were considered to be more closely linked to the earth than other birds yet, with their ability to fly, also on good terms with the sky. In the southwest the dead were wrapped in turkey feather robes for burial since Turkeys were considered as the guides which escorted the departed to the next world.

This all changed of course with the coming of the Europeans in the 17th century. With a mythology of their own that had no room or place in it for Turkeys the European invaders saw them only as sources of meat. Early accounts tell of hunters shooting as many as 100 birds per day - day after day - which was unsustainable.

Wild Turkey nest with eggs, Meleagris gallopavo
Photo courtesy of lu-lu. All rights reserved

Probably more insidious than uncontrolled hunting were the free-ranging hogs the European invaders had imported - European forest dwellers and voracious omnivores - who ate any eggs the ground nesting turkeys managed to lay.

As the frontier spread slowly westward Turkey numbers decreased to zero as Turkey bodies helped fuel the westward expansion. All over America Turkeys were extirpated from the forests and clearings they had inhabited for untold thousands of years and the new settlers intensive land use denied them any return.

Wild Turkeys disappeared first in western Kentucky in the late 1800's, followed in 1910 in southern Illinois and southeast Missouri. By the dawning of the 20th century a few populations of birds remained in the most inaccessible and least populated sections of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks as well as isolated populations in the Appalachians and elsewhere. Throughout the first decades of the 20th century these populations remained stable but showed no sign of expanding their range substantially through normal dispersal. Even after all legal hunting of the birds ceased their numbers and range expanded only with glacial slowness.

A number of states tried re-introductions of various sorts. In the New England states crosses of wild and domesticated birds (because of the difficulty of finding enough wild birds for a release program) were released with dismal results. The birds looked genuinely wild but had few if any of the behavioral traits that would allow them to survive in the real world. None of these crosses succeeded in establishing a genuinely wild population

In 1958 the state of Illinois reintroduced the bird to the state with wild-trapped birds from Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi. Introductions continued throughout the 60's and were so successful that by 1970 Illinois had its first turkey season when a grand total of 25 birds were bagged.

Wild Turkey on someone's lawn, Meleagris gallopavo
Photo © Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved

Over the years turkey numbers have increased dramatically. In the 2002 season more than 16,000 birds were harvested in Illinois with even more bagged in Missouri. And turkey numbers continue to grow making the future look very bright for the turkeys and the turkey hunters who support these programs.

Turkeys and Unnatural Selection

The Wild Turkey is an amazingly alert, wary and nervous bird which vanishes almost instantly when it detects even a potential threat. This is a far cry from descriptions of the birds' behavior when first encountered by Europeans. So what's changed?

North American Indian tribes used the Wild Turkey for more than food. The birds were valued for their feathers which were used in ritual cloaks, for insect control in Indian agricultural fields, as religious and social teaching aids for the young and possibly (and for a limited time in the turkey's life) as pets.

As mentioned in the preceding article hunting pressure on the birds by the aboriginal peoples was anything but intense. Due to a combination of religious and social hunting proscriptions turkey populations were kept at high levels due to Indian land use practices and were hunted only when no other game was available. In addition the Indians hunted exclusively with bows and arrows (as well as to a lesser degree with blowguns and atlatls) which limited the range at which a bird could be killed. Further, Indian tribes customarily captured and raised young birds for use as food and feathers which acclimated the birds to human contact.

In short, Turkeys at the time of European contact were accustomed to living in close proximity to humans and were in large part dependent on them for habitat maintenance and some food sources. Since the Indian tribes took only a limited number of birds each year for food and feathers the birds had learned that humans were on the whole benign.

This relationship with humans changed drastically with the coming of the European invaders who regarded them as nothing but so much meat. With their firearms, their land use patterns, their basic attitude toward wildlife in general and their perceived mandate to subdue the land the Europeans radically changed the equation that had existed between Turkeys and humans on this continent for millenia; and did it so rapidly that the Turkey populations for the most part were unable to adapt to the change.

As a result only the wariest, most alert and most skittish birds survived the continent-wide pogrom that ensued. And of these only those in the most inaccessible nooks and crannies of North America were able to successfully breed and reproduce.

Wild Turkey hen, Meleagris gallopavo
Photo © 2003 Jim Jung and licensors.
All rights reserved

When it at last became possible to reintroduce the Wild Turkey to former Turkey habitat the only birds left were those who had survived the relentless warfare waged against them for centuries - the wiliest and wariest birds Turkey genes could produce. As a result our current crop of Wild Turkeys are, behaviorally at any rate, different from those that were originally found here.

As Turkey populations continue to grow and human-turkey interactions increase we may see a return to something like the original behavior these birds exhibited at the time of first contact. But that time is still far in the future. Until then we'll have to be content with mere glimpses of tail feathers as Turkeys learn when and how to trust our species.

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Copyright © 2003 Jim Jung
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