Talking Turkey About the True American Bird

It was Benjamin Franklin who, despite having unparalleled alacrity in the fields of electricity, eye-wear, and diplomacy, spuriously thought the national bird should have been a turkey. Franklin believed the Bald Eagle to be a bird of “bad moral character,” and, moreover, “a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.” (sic) This opinion shows either that for all his genius Franklin came up short when it came to marketing the American character, or that he detected something strange at the heart of the American soul—why else would he represent history’s most vital democratic project as a bird which, casting endearing gobble and delicious breast meat aside, looks to some like an obese, dirty-feathered burn victim?

Because the Turkey, he writes, is “a bird of courage.” Well, selflessness certainly applies (especially on holidays), but “courage” seems to be pushing it; the living turkeys this writer has seen are usually glimpsed in the middle of their unnecessary retreat. But according to Franklin, the wittiest and most avuncular of American greats, the turkey “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” This might be hyperbolic: as an avid student of U.S. History, I find it unlikely that I slept through lectures on any bloody turkey-led campaigns.

It should be acknowledged now that the Franklin anecdote derives from a letter he wrote to his daughter, and that the whole bird bit was mainly a jab at the Society of the Cincinnati. But good jokes contain kernels of truths, and we would be foolish to dismiss Franklin’s esteem for the bird. Yes, the turkey is a little loud and obnoxious (its gobble can carry over a mile), but it is also a highly contributive one, an endemic American species, and a creature which most of us will likely munch on at some point during the most iconic American holiday, Thanksgiving. The bald eagle, on the other hand, is a princely, snooty creature that steals fish from smaller birds, and was formerly indebted to government programs for its survival. How American is that? 

Moreover, the turkey birds Franklin wrote of were fowl of a feather decidedly different from your run-of-the-mill sandwich-stuffers’. He was speaking of the wild turkeys—alert, nimble birds that roost in trees and can fly over 55 mph (a speed domestic turkeys only reach after being chopped up and vacuum-sealed). Wild turkeys are a sight: an improbable ontological collision between a dinosaur and the feather dusters favored by French maids. A driver encountering one of their unseemly huddles on a country road will experience a range of emotions: first confusion (what the heck are those?), anger (what the heck are they doing in the road?) and finally, a sense of kindly superiority gained from examining just how funny those creatures look. Well, the hens look funny. The male turkeys look like homely old turkeys, bulbous red wattles and all.

Of course, it is not these lean woodsy birds your average American thinks of when they hear the word, “turkey.” For most of us, it is the domestic turkey that struts through the forefront of our nation’s consciousness. That’s rather unfortunate, and bleakly ironic, because a rather unwholesome amount of factory-farmed, “Broad Breasted Whites” have their de-beaked mouths crammed so full of feed that they’re unable to walk, much less strut, or, for that matter, fly. This article began lightheartedly, and so it will not deeply delve into this disturbing issue at length, but if you’re worried, there’s plenty of information on the internet to worry you more. If you’re not worried, then you are implored to order a Turducken, which is a turkey stuffed with a chicken-stuffed duck. It is also available on the internet.

Thankfully, not all domestic turkeys are freakish mutants, and some of them have even been pretty enough to receive major media attention. Since 1989, Domestic Turkeys have held a key role in the White House’s National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation, popularly known as the “turkey pardon.” Every year, a big prize turkey is brought before a president who pets it and scores some face time before officially pardoning it. Bush Sr. made the tradition official, but it had an informal history before him. Kennedy made some quips about sparing him, and so did Regan. Eisenhower, however, was a man of military valor and temperament, and he enjoyed his photogenic turkeys the traditional way—with a fork.

But the bond between man and turkey is not all pomp and symbol. Turkeys offer immense practical benefits to humans, even those who prefer not to eat poultry. One need only ask the citizens of the small, and presumably aromatic, town of Benson, Minnesota (pop. 3376). Benson is the site of Fibrominn, a renewable energy power plant that uses “turkey litter” (basically, oodles of turkey dung and the woodchips on which the birds sleep and relieve themselves) to generate enough electricity to power 60,000 homes. Fibrominn aims to spread their plants elsewhere as well; interested readers are encouraged to read about their efforts at their ticklishly titled website, http//:www.thestraightpoop.org.

While we in California might prefer wind turbines, solar panels, and general good vibes to turkey litter, we ignore the presence of golden state turkeys at our own loss. For even as our government goes bankrupt and home prices plummet, the California turkey thrives. Even Benicia’s seen some action, with turkeys making casual appearances in our eastern environs. Anecdotal and online sightings have been reported from Chelsea Hills to the Valero property. This trend suggests, as does the Turkey’s strong showing in the Danville-Alamo area, that our Turkeys tend to go in for expensive real estate.

But the turkey’s easy adjustment to Northern California is cause for concern. Its gluttony enabled by a fine climate and a scarcity of predators, the turkey is expanding its reach and becoming a conspicuous consumer. Along with the wild boar, the turkey is chomping is way through the outer East Bay, gobbling up the very seedlings that produce the iconic oaks of Contra Costa County’s hills. And on this we’ve no one to blame but ourselves. While there may’ve been some turkey-like bird endemic to ancient California, the current swath of wild turkeys descend from a population of Rio Grand turkeys scooped up from Texas and introduced in the 1970’s by the Department of Fish and Game. Since that introduction, the turkey population has boomed to over 200,000 birds. They’re especially abundant in Monterey County. Again, real estate.

Residents of Solano County who feel threatened by these numbers can appease their fears by hunting turkeys in Putah Creek Wildlife Area. Putah Creek borders Napa county, where, according to a hilariously alarmist frontline piece, turkeys ravage vineyards, spurning vintners to don masks and hunt the ravenous galliformes themselves. Often, the vineyard raiders are the same turkeys who gormandize upon olive orchards, a habit which reportedly leaves the bird’s meat quite flavorful. The fall season opens on the thirteenth (truly, an unlucky number for a turkey) and continues till the twenty eighth, which leaves plenty of time to secure a family meal.

Whether you hunt them or feed them, you should remember that the wild turkey is a versatile, unique, and very adaptable bird. The once over-hunted bird now lives in every state but Alaska, and it seems ready to make the concessions to the modern American landscape that the most successful creatures—raccoons and squirrels—already do. For example, though the turkey is mostly a picky, vegetarian forager, it’ll occasionally consume snakes and lizards. In this flexibility, the wild turkey resembles those humans who, fallen from financial affluence, will consume Cheetos, jerky links, and other gas station savories. Here, the turkey comes off as a very practical bird indeed, and, in times like these, a thoroughly American one, too.

Categories: Community, Food + Drink, Wellness

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