Photo by Gluzberg Photography
Not Just a Thanksgiving Turkey
Most people think turkeys are dumb birds. Since it’s Thanksgiving, this seems like an appropriate time to talk about the turkey, but not the one that’s usually served on a platter.
I’m referring to the wild turkey that has been around the America’s for over 10 million years; the one that was near extinction and survived to be given the title of “one tough bird”.
When I was a kid, my family spent Thanksgiving at my grandfather’s cattle ranch in Florida. While I wasn’t fond of it, one of the major activities during this holiday was hunting. The Holy Grail for the hunters was to get a wild turkey for their Thanksgiving meal.
This sounds easy enough. After all, most people believe turkeys are dumb birds that can’t fly, and some believe they do stupid things like drown themselves by looking up when it rains.
Yet, when we sat down for our Thanksgiving meal, most times there was no turkey. With their powerful guns and vigilant stalking, the hunters still failed to hunt this bird successfully.
If you are surprised, it’s because you’re basing what you know about turkeys on the domestic turkey. Wild turkeys are very different from domestic turkeys. They are extremely hard to catch. Why, you might ask?
Wild Turkeys are Wily
They are very alert and cautious birds that can run up to 20 miles per hour. They can also fly 55 miles per hour in a matter of seconds, for short distances. Wild turkeys have excellent hearing and vision, with their field of vision being about 270 degrees.
After years of sitting through many turkey-free Thanksgiving dinners, my respect for these smart and wily birds grew. It amazed me how they continued to avoid being served at our dinner table, despite all the determined efforts of the hunters in my family.
To Catch a Wild Turkey
While researching the wild turkey, I discovered a project conducted by the University of Florida to measure the population of wild turkeys in that state. If anything could debunk the “dumb turkey” myth, this study could.
The study was conducted by Dr. Mel Sunquist, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Dr. Sunquist and the group of students working on the study discovered that capturing wild turkeys was not easy.
Efforts to find and count these birds were not effective. The study participants learned that you can’t just go out and catch a wild turkey. Not only do they see you coming, but they hear you coming from a long way off. The wild turkeys vanish before you can get close enough.
In order to count the birds, Dr. Sunquist and his students had to be far enough away to not alert them, and yet find a way to capture a large number for counting and banding purposes. They ended up using large rocket-powered nets.
Using corn as bait, they hid and waited until the turkeys came out to feed. Then they used a remote control to fire rockets that released a large net over the turkeys. The turkeys were not injured, and this was the only way the researchers were able to capture an entire flock for banding.
While very effective, this method wasn’t foolproof. Some turkeys still sensed the danger and disappeared.
So, to be clear, the wild turkey isn’t just some dumb bird to be made fun of. According to popular legend, Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey be named as the national bird for the United States instead of the bald eagle. If there is any truth to this legend, we can certainly see where he was coming from.
Needless to say, some people laugh at this idea, but in my opinion, Ben had it right. The wild turkey may not be as photogenic as the bald eagle, but it is one smart bird, worthy of respect.
Have a happy Thanksgiving :~)