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Wild Turkey Facts: Wildly Different
 
Wild Turkey
Rio Grande Subspecies
Credit: Donald Jones/
National Wild Turkey Federation
The word "turkey" sometimes gives rise to a mental image of a ponderous, dim witted animal that could be characterized as a feathered cow. Come to think of it, that's not far from reality when you're talking about commercially raised poultry. On the other hand, it couldn't be farther from the truth when dealing with their wild cousins.

Reviewing a mix of legend and fact, it is surmised that today's grocery store varieties are ancestors of a race of wild turkeys that are now extinct. The now extinct subspecies Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo was a Mexican race of wild turkeys that were domesticated by the Aztecs and Mayans. The Conquistadors that plundered the ancient Mexican tribes took turkeys back to Europe along with silver and gold. It was during this time that turkeys received their common name. Some authors maintain that the word "turkey" was taken from the bird's call, "turk, Turk" A more logical explanation suggests that "turkey" is derived from the Hebrew word tukki, which also means "peacock," and was applied to the turkey by the Jewish poultry merchants who helped introduce the bird to Europe.

Centuries later, early European settlers brought turkeys and other livestock back to North America. These birds have been subsequently bred to bring out the broad-breast characteristics and much larger body size seen today. At maturity, domestic toms can tip the scales at 60 pounds, while their wild cousins average a sleek, fleet 18 pounds.

An original native of North America, the wild turkey is noted as a wary bird that's even more delicious on the table than its tame brethren. The wild turkey is also several rungs higher on the social ladder of the turkey world.

Many television sitcom fans remember the famous WKRP episode where the radio station bombed downtown Cincinnati with flightless domestic turkeys. By comparison, wild turkeys can wing away from predators at 45 mph, and can maintain level flight for nearly a mile. Although very similar in some aspects, the wild turkey is as distant from the domestic as an athlete is from a couch potato.

The differences between the tame and the wild turkey are easily recognized. To the uneducated ear, they may share many of the same calls but their use and inflection are decidedly different. Domestic turkeys will respond with a squeaky gobble to almost anything and seem to stay in a vocal mood. Visit a turkey farm and you quickly learn just how noisy they can be.
 
Credit: National Wild Turkey Federation

Wild turkeys have learned too much talking can call in things other than turkeys, like predators and hunters. True skill is required to consistently call in the elusive wild turkey.

The physical traits of domestic turkeys make them an obvious stand out from the wild turkey. Incapable of flying or even running very fast, they would make easy pickings for any predator in nature. Domestics' neck skin, or wattles, are heavier, snoods, the finger-like appendage that hangs over the bill, are longer and breasts much larger and broader. The domestic also possesses a temperament suited to confinement. All of these features point to the selective breeding and sedentary lifestyle that are true to the domestic breed.

A truly wild turkey is a sleek, alert animal, built for speed and survival. Its senses are sharpened through generations of living in a harsh, unforgiving environment. A wild turkey that loses its caution is soon to become a predator's dinner. This constant state of caution has made the wild turkey one of the toughest game animals in the world to hunt or even photograph.

Lacking its cousin's natural caution (and intelligence) is one reason that has kept pen-raised or domestic turkeys from being of any benefit to turkey restoration efforts. Many people still don't understand that the pen-raised turkey contributed little, if any, to the expansion of the wild turkey in recent years. Even turkeys with a wild genetic background, but raised in a pen, will cease to exist in nature. The few that initially survive will generally do nothing to expand their range and eventually will perish. 

"Domestic or pen raised birds can actually cause harm to the wild turkeys already in a population. They can pass on disease and learned tamed traits. For these and other reasons, many states and federal wildlife agencies have passed restrictions on introducing domestic turkeys into the wild," said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, National Wild Turkey Federation senior vice president for conservation programs.

Today, the wild turkey, along with its socially unrefined domestic cousin, is a pretty common sight across much of North America. In the early 1900's, however, only about 30,000 wild turkeys remained. Today, the number of wild turkeys now stands at 5.6 million birds. Restocking efforts with pen raised turkeys only served to feed predators and hinder population expansion. The large numbers of wild turkeys across the nation today are a direct result of trap and transfer efforts by state wildlife agencies and the NWTF. Trap and transfer programs remove a few wild turkeys from an area with a high population, and place them in areas with suitable habitat, but no wild turkey population.

The NWTF is dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of the North American hunting tradition. It's a 450,000-member nonprofit organization with members in 50 states, Canada and 11 foreign countries. Its volunteers work diligently to improve habitat, restore populations and continue conservation education. Without these efforts by concerned citizens and wildlife professionals the wild turkey might well have followed the passenger .

For information on the National Wild Turkey Federation, 
call (803) 637-3106; check out our website at www.nwtf.org or e-mail questions to nwtf@nwtf.net.
 


** For lots of excellent Wild Turkey Recipes check Cooking Turkey With SusieQ


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