Living With Animals: Giving The Bird

By Hope Bidegainberry on November 15, 2019

Defying several stereotypes, my mother was not a very good cook, and neither did she ever show much interest in becoming one. I remember asking about turkey one franks-and-beans Thanksgiving (not a good cook, she was a good warmer-upper) and getting quite a story in reply. Said mom, explaining why she’d never serve such a meal to her family, “turkey is the Old Testament food of grief,” further explaining that this is why turkeys are traditionally brought to homes of those in mourning.

I honestly don’t know if turkey is served in many grieving homes; my experience, casseroles are more commonplace. But I am confident turkeys are not mentioned in the Old Testament, either in reference to the dead or the living, simply because turkeys are native only to the Americas, first introduced to other parts of the world in the 1500s by Spanish traders sailing through Turkey (gaining a new nickname en route) long, long after Genesis was authored.

Domestic turkeys have about as much in common with the original wild turkey as my ten pound Chihuahua-poodle mix Lola has with a wolf. Actually, there are two wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo and M. ocellata), the former from North America and the latter native to Mexico and Central America. The more southern species is a far showier bird, with iridescent blue and bronze feathers capped by a powder-blue and red speckled head) who whistles while our local resident gobbles. Unfortunate for both that both are considered excellent eating. So excellent, in fact, that by 1525 – just 33 years after Columbus landed – every turkey brought to Europe was quickly “gobbled up” (sorry!) by lords and ladies looking for a change from local, reportedly stringy marshbirds.

Turkeys were once so plentiful along the Eastern seaboard that Native American peoples saw no need to domesticate them, but the conservative Pilgrims were not so willing to trust to the fates. Domestication and guns all but wiped out the wild species by the mid-nineteenth century. Reintroduction of the wild birds has been a massive success story, as residents of many suburban communities can certainly verify, and an estimated 4,000,000 wild turkeys now roam the lower 48 states, a vast expansion over their initial range.

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