Ask Otus™: 'In Praise of Turkeys'

 
 

Otus Rufous, an Eastern Screech-owl, was born on Siesta Key and is a full-time resident there. An avid hunter, accomplished vocalist and genuine night owl, Otus is a keen observer of our local wildlife and knows many of nature's secrets. Otus will answer your questions about our amazing wildlife, but only if you Ask Otus™.
 

Dear Readers,

We have a magnificent bird to admire as a symbol of our bounteous Thanksgivings: Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey, as well its two direct descendents, M. farmraisedo, the Domesticated, and M. permafrosto, the frozen turkey. 

 


As most people know, in a 1784 letter to his daughter, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin expressed disappointment with the official recognition of the American Bald Eagle as the Representative of our Nation. Franklin deemed the Bald Eagle: ... "a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly." Further, he is a cowardly and lazy thief (for stealing Ospreys' fish). By comparison, the Wild Turkey is "a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America" as well as "a Bird of Courage".

Franklin did concede that it could be a little vain and silly at times.

The wild turkey has good reasons to be vain. The adult male has some 5,500 feathers, whose beautiful rich hues and iridescent tips recall a forest during an autumn sunset — vibrant ochre and deep mahogany mingled with silvers and burnished gold. When he is courting, the turkey's thick lustrous fan feathers, shimmering in the sunlight, are the envy of strutting dancers at the Folies Bergère. His bald head, snood and wattle change color according to his emotions, turning red, white and blue — you can't get any more patriotic than that!

A tom (or gobbler), as the adult male is called, can attain running speeds of 25 mph and bursts of flight up to 55 mph. His gobble can be heard a mile away and he is fiercely protective of his territory. He has a laissez-faire attitude toward his offspring, called poults, and lets the hens raise them. Poults are born precocial and are up and running and feeding on their own within just a few days of hatching.

John James Audubon admired the wild turkey as much as Franklin did. He demonstrated his affection and great admiration for this symbol of the epic American wilderness by making it the first bird subject in his Birds of America. Audubon even embossed his letters with a gold and carnelian signet ring depicting a turkey cock and the phrase, "America My Country." He was that proud of his naturalized American citizenship and that impressed by this native wild bird. You can actually see the original folios, the carnelian and gold signet, and many other personal items if you visit the extraordinary collections of The John James Audubon Museum in Henderson, Ky.

Audubon also enjoyed the rich flavor of a cooked Wild Turkey. Many turkey hunters will cook and eat only the turkey breast, the rest being too tough; however, if the turkey is injected with wine and allowed to marinate for a day, all its flesh becomes tender and flavorsome. Click here for some marinating tips.

The wild turkey's silly side is often the result of contact with humans. Highly territorial, standing 4 feet tall and with superb day vision, a wild turkey marching into town will fearlessly attack parking meters and his reflection in shop windows or a car's side mirror, causing people to panic, stampede out of his path and then write outraged letters to editors of local newspapers and place panicky calls to mayors and local police authorities. After all, the turkey is taller than their children and attacks not only with his beak but with his 1 1/2-inch spurs, which he uses to oust other toms from his harem.

According to Wikipedia, the Aztecs associated the turkey with their mischievous god Tezcatlipoca "perhaps because of its perceived humorous behavior." Surely, centuries ago, the Aztecs experienced something similar to this modern-day true event.

On Cape Cod, which has a large population of wild turkeys roaming about, a tom began relentlessly pursuing a mail truck and throwing himself against the vehicle. The letter carrier was afraid to leave his truck and residents would hide in their homes or cars when this rogue turkey was sighted. Speculation was that the tom was living up to Ben Franklin's high opinion of him by attacking the American Bald Eagle symbol on the postal truck. Even knowing the turkey's daily routine, authorities were unable to capture him, as he ran (and flew) faster than they could.

This wily turkey gained even greater notoriety and prestige when Ethel Kennedy, phoning from Florida, told the Cape Cod Times, "It's our bird. He's aggressive and knows how to escape." She reported the Kennedy grandkids had a great time chasing after it for three days around her Hyannis Port property during their Thanksgiving sojourn. She also gave a detailed description to claim ownership: "Black with a red head" That imperious pronouncement inspired many local residents to place tongue-in-cheek ads — "Missing pet raccoon. Gray with black mask."

So much for the silly side of the wild turkey ...

The wild turkey is widespread and endemic to all U.S. states except Alaska. Well, that is only if you dismiss the featherless human turkey! For example, Governor Sarah Palin during a 2008 press conference "pardoned" a Thanksgiving domesticated turkey against the backdrop of a turkey slaughterhouse while turkeys were actually in the process of being slaughtered! Warning: necessary gore.

Now to its subspecies, M. farmraisedo: domesticated turkeys are as beautiful as wild ones and can have a varied spectrum of colors. Mesoamericans of central Mexico domesticated these birds some 2,000 years ago, using their eggs and meat as a staple protein source and their feathers to decorate garments and headdresses. European explorers and settlers in the early 16th century brought these turkeys to Europe and then reintroduced their newly bred stock back into the Americas when colonizing those lands.

Now bred exclusively for weight and human consumption, these turkeys cannot fly, but they certainly can hop and are a lively, gregarious lot.

Although bronzed-feathered varieties are raised, the great majority of domesticated Turkeys are bred white to make their pin feathers less visible after their carcasses are plucked and dressed. The Broad-breasted White variety is the most famous breed and the one most frequently chosen for the Thanksgiving presentation to the First Family.

The concept of a National Turkey Pardon Day is a delightful one. Truman is credited with the first turkey "pardon" in 1947, but facts do not support this. Ceremonially, the tradition began in 1989 when President George H. W. Bush granted the first official presidential pardon. This light-hearted occasion, usually taking place in the Rose Garden, always brings a smile to everyone, regardless of party affiliation.

The presentation Thanksgiving turkey is selected when he is a poult (only a couple of hens have ever been selected), and he is raised to handle the noisy crowds and paparazzi great aplomb. Unfortunately, he is also raised to be the ne plus ultra model of turkey breeding; meaning he is huge and grossly obese, and suffers from heart disease and all its related illnesses. These presentation turkeys do not live much longer than a year after their pardon. But their last months on earth are pleasantly comfortable ones.

In the past, pardoned turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Park, Va. (I checked it out and it actually is a park, not a fast-food chain as the name might suggest!) and even to our own Florida Disney World, where they once performed as grand marshals in Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Currently, President Obama's pardoned turkeys are sent to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home.

Although wild and domesticated turkeys abound in Sarasota County, I have never had the pleasure of seeing one. It is M. permafrosto, the frozen turkey subspecies, that rules on Siesta Key.

The frozen turkey is a headless, tailless, apodal breed whose pale, pimpled flesh is covered with an inscribed plastic wrap in lieu of feathers. Its innards, cryogenically preserved in its cavity, include a long wrinkly neck, a tiny heart, gizzards and, due to sedentary feeding, a hefty over-sized liver (and animal rights groups protest importing goose foie gras?!).

Take a look at the accompanying photo of a turkey at 7:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day. It more resembles a prop on a "Mission Impossible" set than a delectable dinner. But in just a few hours it will be served stuffed, golden-brown and aromatic. How does that happen? Well, from what I have observed, on Thanksgiving Day, more so than on other holiday, people extend their warm hospitality not only to beloved family and friends but also to those who might have been left all alone that day. I see families and children with old and now new friends all laughing while chipping at the ice in the turkey's cavity, yelling encouragements to their favorite football team while setting the microwaves' defrost function to high and helping out in every way — enjoying every moment and having a grand old time. Many guests even stay long enough to help with the cleanup!

 

The spirit of sharing at Thanksgiving is truly heart-warming. It makes me proud to be a Native American owl — yet quite determined to keep my freshly-caught warm and still quivering vole all to myself.

— Otus

 

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