Nov 15, 2008

Talkin' Turkey

It’s true.  Turkey was probably served at the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 (along with goose, duck, grouse, eagle, venison and seal). 


And yes, Benjamin Franklin thought the Wild Turkey would be a much better national emblem than the Bald Eagle.  In a letter to his daughter Franklin said, “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country.  He is a Bird of bad moral Character.  He does not get his Living honestly…For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.  He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”


Famed 19th century naturalist John James Audubon agreed.  Said Audubon, “Sufffer me kind reader, to say how much I grieve that it (Bald Eagle) should have been selected as the Emblem of my Country.  The opinion of our great Franklin on this subject, as it perfectly coincides with my own...”


Wild Turkey’s were abundant when Audubon was exploring our woodlands and painting birds.  Audubon stated, “The unsettled parts of the States of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana…are the most abundantly supplied with this magnificent bird.”  Unfortunately, by the early 1900’s turkeys were nearly driven to extinction in North America due to over hunting and habitat loss.  And because of hunters, turkeys are the common sight they are today.


Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologist George Wright is the hero of today’s turkey hunters.  His foresight, wisdom and salesmanship brought Wild Turkeys back to Kentucky.  In the mid-1970’s Wright traded deer, especially our big bucks, for turkeys from Mississippi.  And when Missouri wanted river otters, Wright bought otters from Louisiana and traded them for Missouri turkeys.  The rest is history.  More than 230,000 Wild Turkeys now call Kentucky home, and every county in Kentucky allows turkey hunting.


If you want to know about Wild Turkeys ask a turkey hunter.  “It’s a blast,” said Mike Hollan of Highland Heights (who is also a manager at Party Town in Florence, for those looking for some Turkey-day spirits).  “Everyone thinks it’s about killing, but it’s about being in nature and seeing what’s going on in nature.”  Mike has hunted turkeys for 15 years, 13 with a gun and 2 with a camera.  The camera adds a new dimension.  “It’s all about witnessing the beauty of nature,” he said.  “I just love doing this, being there, and sharing the wildlife with people who never see this in the wild.”


A person can’t just go out and bag a turkey.  “They are the most difficult things I’ve ever hunted,” said Mike.  “They have eyesight like a pair of 10-power binoculars and unbelievable hearing that allows them to accurately pinpoint noises.”  It takes patience and you have to think like a turkey.  “You can’t just sit anywhere and call turkeys,” he continued.  “You have to know where they’re roosting, where their strutting ground is, and get between them and the strut ground.  You have to get out one-hour before daylight and set up decoys to attract them.  It is so much fun to see them interact with the decoys.  Mature male birds will try to run the immature male decoy off.  Hens will go right up to the female decoys and try to interact.”   


“Dominant males use young males as sentries,” said Mike.  “After the young males run the gauntlet and the dominant male knows it’s safe, he runs the young males off so he can mate with the females.  He displays and calls a hen to an open sunny area, and then they go to the woods to mate.  After mating, he goes back to the open area, displays and calls again.  He’ll mate with several females.”  The male’s distinctive gobble can be heard up to a mile away.


The nest is shallow depression in the ground, surrounded by dense brush, vines, tall grass, or fallen trees.  “They’ll lay one egg per day, and will normally lay 10 to 20 eggs,” said Mike.  The chicks, or poults, are born precocial, and are able to walk and feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching.


“Nest robbers are their biggest predators,” said Mike.  “They include skunks, raccoons, foxes, and snakes.  Coyotes can get young birds, but after a few weeks when they can fly, they really have few predators.  When a coyote or something hunts them, they naturally just bust up and spread apart.  When it’s safe, the mother will call them all back.”


“You can determine age by the length of their spurs,” Mike said.  “As they get older the spurs get longer and sharper, up to 1 ¾-inches.  The spurs are used to protect their females.  Yearling males, or jakes, have no spurs and only a 2 to 4-inch beard.  Within a year males will get a 9-inch beard and spurs about ½-inch.  Average weight is about 19 to 22 pounds.”


Are they good eating?  “You can only eat the breast,” said Mike.  “The legs and wings are too tough from running and flying.  Young birds are best, and if cooked right they are pretty good.  The meat is drier, leaner and tougher than the domestic bird.  Most folks will deep fry or smoke them.  I like them best when deep-fried in peanut oil.”


Much of the wildlife we see today is here not because of tree-huggers, but because of hunters.  “Hunters are the big reason we have reintroduced turkeys and other critters like river otters and elk to the state,” said Mike.  “So as a non-hunter, if you want to help wildlife, make a donation to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”


Gobble gobble.



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