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Wild Turkeys Gobble Their Way To A Comeback

Nov 11, 2012
Originally published on November 15, 2012 3:38 pm

Wild turkeys and buffalo have more in common than you might guess. Both were important as food for Native Americans and European settlers. And both were nearly obliterated.

There were a couple of reasons for the turkey's decline. In the early years of the U.S., there was no regulation, so people could shoot as many turkeys as they liked. And their forest habitat was cut down for farmland and heating fuel. Without trees, turkeys have nowhere to roost. So they began to disappear.

By the early 1900s, there were only about 30,000 wild turkeys left in the whole country. Then conservationists went to work and, and after a few false starts, they figured out how to bring the birds back and protect them.

Today, there are nearly 7 million wild turkeys. They are in every state but Alaska and are considered one of the great success stories of wildlife management. Now state offices get calls about flocks of wild turkeys in people's backyards, in front of office buildings, even holding up traffic in rush hour.

Since it's against the law to sell wildlife, turkeys are traded. Say a state has a lot of turkeys but no river otters. That state finds another state that has a lot of otters and needs turkeys, and it makes a trade. A state might exchange 30 turkeys for 10 elk or rough grouse for turkeys.

Turkey hunting usually occurs in spring during the birds' mating season. Only male turkeys can be shot at that time because the females are breeding. Some states have now added fall hunting because there are so many turkeys.

The American wild turkey bears almost no resemblance to its distant cousin, the Butterball. Domesticated turkeys have been bred to have such humongous breasts that they can barely stand up, let alone get off the ground. Wild turkeys run and fly.

Since domesticated turkeys never move, their legs and thighs don't get overly muscled like those of the wild turkey, and remain fat and juicy. Because a wild bird's legs are sinewy from all that exercise, the breast is the best part, but it has a more intense flavor than the supermarket brand.

Oddly, the ancestors of most supermarket turkeys are from Mexico. The Spanish took them to Europe in the 1500s, and the birds became popular all over the continent.

When English settlers came to America, they brought turkeys back to the New World. Those are the turkeys that were developed into today's commercial varieties, completing the turkey's roundtrip.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thanksgiving is around the corner, the time of year we talk turkey - fresh or frozen, roasted or deep-fried, farm raised or wild. WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf explores these burning questions, and in particular the fate of the wild turkey. Turns out, they're making a comeback.

BONNY WOLF, BYLINE: American wild turkeys are like buffalo. Both were important as food for Native Americans and European settlers. And both were nearly obliterated. It was a couple of things: first, no regulation. Shoot as many turkeys as you like. No limit. Second, forests were cut down for farmland and for heating fuel. Without trees, turkeys have nowhere to roost. So, they began to disappear. By the early 1900s, there were only about 30,000 wild turkeys left in the whole country. Then conservationists went to work and, after a few false starts, figured out how to bring them back and protect them. Today, there are nearly seven million wild turkeys in every state but Alaska.

This is considered one of the great success stories of wildlife management. Now, state offices get calls about flocks of wild turkeys holding up traffic in rush hour; turkeys in the backyard; turkeys in front of office buildings. Think deer. Since it's against the law to sell wildlife, they're traded. So, say your state has a lot of turkeys but no river otters. You find a state that has a lot of otters and needs turkeys and you trade.

The American wild turkey bears almost no resemblance to its very distant cousin the Butterball. For one thing, wild turkeys actually fly - and run. Domesticated turkeys have been bred to have such humongous breasts that they can barely stand up, let alone get off the ground. Since domesticated turkeys never move, their legs and thighs don't get overly muscled like those of the wild turkey. They remain fat and juicy. Because its legs are sinewy from all that exercise, the best part of the wild bird is the breast, but it has a more intense flavor than the supermarket brand.

Oddly, the ancestors of most turkeys we eat are from Mexico. The Spanish brought them back in the 1500s and they became popular all over Europe. So, these were the turkeys English settlers brought with them to America. A round-trip. So, it is possible that you, like the pilgrims, could have a wild turkey on your Thanksgiving table.

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MARTIN: Bonny Wolf is the contributing editor of NPR's Kitchen Window. She is @BonnyWolf on Twitter.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.