As the golden days of August have baked off into September, a new set of characters have emerged upon our backyard in Hope. In addition to the rooster and the Guinea Hens next door, we now have a rafter of wild turkeys patrolling our field every morning. A half dozen hens and twice as many poults can be seen going about their business without a care in the word, not even a moment’s notice for me and my car trying to get by them.

Sophie, our indefatigable American Eskimo, was the first to notice our new neighbors. When she went tearing after them, they scattered like sheep, some of them flying unwieldy bodies to the tops of trees. Sophie spun around once or twice, pleased with herself for dispelling such a noble flock.

Seeing them up close, in all their purple and green iridescence, made me want to learn a thing or two about this traditional staple of the North American continent. It turns out a wild turkey is more than just an overpriced bourbon, or a Thanksgiving treat.

Benjamin Franklin supposedly recommended the turkey as the national bird, favoring it over the Bald Eagle. It’s easy to dismiss this as another wild claim by our beloved but bombastic founding grandfather. But what if old Ben was on to something?

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, an excited wild turkey “can change the color of its head to red, pink, white or blue.” National bird indeed.
Terrifyingly, the almanac also lists the bird’s top ground speed at 25 miles per hour. The turkey can fly for up to a mile and reach airborne speeds of up to 55 mph! Maybe unwieldy is the wrong word.

If you believe Wikipedia, turkeys are social animals, known to graze and even play with deer and squirrels.

The Eastern wild turkey was a sacred bird to many Native American tribes. Colorful turkey feathers were used for everything from arrows to religious ceremonies. Wampanoag dignitaries wore whole coats made of turkey feathers. Recent archaeological studies even show that extra male turkeys were deliberately raised to harvest their brighter feathers.

The first Thanksgiving was highly romanticized, but the symbol of the turkey as a coming together between settlers and natives may well have been apt. The turkey had long been a staple of the natives’ diet, but it had also long been central to English festival dinners. Turkeys had been introduced to the Old World as early as the 1500s. The Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII proclaimed that large fowl such as cranes, swans, and turkeys should “be but one in a dish” on festival days. A tradition is born.

The truth about the Franklin myth is that he wasn’t actually recommending the turkey at all, nor was he even talking about a national bird. In comparing the eagle and the turkey, he felt the turkey was “the more respectable bird.” The myth comes from a letter he once wrote to his daughter in which he complained about the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal order open only to the heirs of Continental Army veterans. Franklin considered the practice of a heritable order unworthy of the New World. He was mocking them for placing the bald eagle on their crest. He referred to the eagle as “a bird of bad moral character.”

Mainers will recognize the scene he lays out, where the bald eagle, “too lazy to fish for himself…watches the labor of the fishing hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is baring it back to his nest for the support of his mate and his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

In the letter to his daughter, Franklin mentioned that people commonly mistook the image of the Cincinnati’s crest “as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey.” He chuckled that the turkey might be the better bird to represent the Cincinnati because he was “vain & silly, a bird of courage, who would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to enter his farm yard with a red coat on.”
When I loosed Sophie upon them this morning the turkeys didn’t budge. She went in with the confidence of an arctic fox but found herself face to face with latter-day velociraptors a head taller than herself. Sophie didn’t quite know what to do with these walking cold cuts and I began to see Franklin’s point.

But their defiance of Sophie and of the redcoats notwithstanding, the Eastern Turkey was almost extinct by the start of the 20th century. There were no turkeys in Maine by the 1940s, when the cleared woodlands of the state began to be reforested.

It was a testament to interstate cooperation and deliberate reforestation efforts that brought the turkey back to Maine. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, “between 1977 and 1988, Maine received 41 turkeys from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and 70 turkeys from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.” Now the Maine flock is estimated to be somewhere between 60 and 70,000. This number is considered so healthy that there is room to cull the heard. In 2021, things have come full circle. Eastern wild turkeys are being captured when they turn up in unsuitable locations, like dairy farms and airports, and transported to East Texas, where they will hopefully restore a wild population that was once native to that region.

All of this gives me hope for America. It also makes me a little bit hungry. Maybe one of these days Sophie will get lucky, and we will feast on wild turkey at Thanksgiving instead of their domestic cousins.

Either way I’ll enjoy it. And either way I’ll be dining this time on the history, not the myth.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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