When contemplating a holiday-appropriate blog post for this week, the first thing that came to mind was the Turkey. Turkeys are of course the centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving feast, but are they really interesting enough to spend five minutes reading about? After all you are quite busy today. Well, Benjamin Franklin thought they were pretty impressive. Legend has it he advocated for the noble Turkey as our national bird over the Bald Eagle. While this may largely be an American myth, his writing on the subject shows he clearly had great respect for the bird.
“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the Bald Eagle], and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
- Benjamin Franklin
But of course this is a nature blog, shouldn’t we be talking about a species of conservation interest? Wild Turkeys are everywhere these days, after all. And I’m not talking about the freakishly large bird sitting in my refrigerator. Farm turkeys as a group are clearly doing fine, and judging by the relatively cheap mounds of bird carcass currently at any grocery store these birds are not under threat. Well, the dead ones were clearly threatened, but the population of domestic turkeys in general is doing great - because we must have a continuous supply of white meat. Even those of you worried about genetic stock and inbreeding; industry has you covered. But I digress. Wild Turkeys are also plentiful. You may have seen gangs* of them terrorizing your local park or cemetery, or you may have even hunted them yourself. These boisterous fowl are common enough to be a nuisance or even dangerous.
But it wasn’t always this way. Due to hunting and habitat loss, Wild Turkeys suffered dramatic declines between the nineteenth and early twentieth century. New England saw its subspecies of the Turkey almost disappear, only surviving in small pockets of wilderness. Texas and the southwestern United States also saw drastic declines to their respective subspecies. However, due to its popularity as a game bird, beginning in the 1940s widespread efforts were made to restore lost populations. Farm turkeys were released (then promptly died) and wild individuals were transplanted. The transplantation effort and subsequent management proved wildly successful. The species has regained and even expanded upon its lost range. Currently Alaska is the only US state that is not inhabited by Wild Turkeys. Yes, Hawaii has them too - they did not swim there on their own.
So I guess you could say this is a conservation success story! Perhaps the key to conserving declining species is to convince people they are tasty and should be eaten on national holidays. It’s kind of working for salmon - for some populations more than others. It didn’t work for the Turkey’s far-flung and infamous cousin the Dodo or pretty much any scrumptious marine species. Ok, it’s a very flawed or at best over-simplified premise, but at least in this instance you can feel good about your meat of choice as you slip into a Tryptophan-induced coma this Thanksgiving. Unless of course you are eating an industrial-produced farm turkey, then you may have other environmental concerns… but we’ll leave that for another post.
Want to waste more time on turkeys? See John Oliver’s bit on Turkey Pardoning.
It might be science, it might be nons(ci)ense, but it still smells.