Let’s Talk Turkey

It’s Thanksgiving Eve. Tomorrow, people from all across the United States will be gathering with their loved ones and turning on the parade or the big game. They’ll also be turning on their ovens to prepare that classic Thanksgiving dish: turkey.


It’s just not Thanksgiving without turkey. Some years ago when my mother suggested cooking ham for Thanksgiving, my sister and I revolted. If turkey was good enough for the pilgrims and the native Americans, it was good enough for us! What else would we smother in ketchup and eat like our cousin taught us? My mother relented and we had turkey that year the same as ever.

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey a more fitting symbol of America than the bald eagle (it’s a myth though that he actively advocated for it becoming our national symbol)? He thought the bald eagle was too lazy and cowardly to adequately represent the spirit of our foundling nation. The turkey though was a “true original native of America.” Funny then that the bird is named for a foreign country.

Turkey walking down the road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Turkey walking down the road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The domestic turkey is thought to have originated in Mexico, although the method of domestication is unknown, and is the same species (Meleagris gallopavo) as the wild turkey that roams across much of the United States. There are several subspecies of wild turkey. In Colorado, the wild turkey is Meleagris gallopavo merriami or Merriam’s wild turkey, which is native to the ponderosa pine forests of the Rocky Mountains. Turkeys are omnivorous, meaning they’ll eat meat like lizards or insects in addition to seeds and berries, but one of their primary foods in the fall is the acorn.

Wild turkeys mate in the spring with males performing a courtship dance called “strutting” where they puff out their feathers and spread their tails. They also gobble and drum to attract the ladies. The baby turkeys resulting from successful mating are called “poults” and are immediately able to walk and leave the nest after hatching. This precocialism is common in birds that nest on the ground and that are therefore more vulnerable to predators.

Speaking of predators, turkeys are delicious to a wide range of creatures! Raccoons, squirrels, snakes, and crows will eat turkey eggs. Poults are also eaten by hawks, owls, or foxes. Toms (adult males) and hens (adult females) aren’t proof against predators either. Hungry coyotes, bobcats, or mountain lions may go after full-grown birds. And, of course, that brings us back to the dinner table. The major predators of adult turkeys are you and I: humans.

So, strap on a bib, pour the gravy (or the ketchup) and let’s give thanks for the fowl that makes our Thanksgiving anything but foul, the turkey.

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