restricted access 4. The Call of the Wild Turkey; or, How the Wild Turkey Came to a Fowl Ending

From: The Turkey

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4 The Call of the Wild Turkey; or, How the Wild Turkey Came to a Fowl Ending Many European expeditions explored what is today the United States during the sixteenth century. Some charted the coastline of eastern North America, others established settlements in the New World. In 1562 Jean Ribault, a French captain, explored the coast of southeastern North America. The French established a fort at La Carocine in what is now Jacksonville, Florida. Simultaneously , the Spanish built a fort at St. Augustine to protect the northern sea lanes traversed by their galleons bearing New World treasure back to Spain. The Spanish believed that the French colony threatened their hold on the region, and they destroyed it. But before they did, Jacques Le Moyne recorded life in drawings that have survived. Wild turkeys are visible in one, the first known drawing of the bird in America.1 Wild turkeys were generally unknown to most Europeans, but domesticated birds were already an important food source in Western Europe by the 1580s. George Peckham recommended that future English colonists headed for North America take male and female turkeys along on the journey.2 Evidently, Peckham was unaware that eastern North America teemed with wild turkeys that were much larger than domesticated ones. In all the European colonies in eastern North America, wild turkeys were highly valued. They didn’t need to be penned or fed or cared for; they were there for the taking. In 1630 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the first minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony , wrote, “Here are likewise aboundance of Turkies often killed in the Woods, farre greater then our English Turkies, and exceeding fat, sweet, and fleshy.”3 In fact, some colonists did not even 01.1-136_Smit.indd 39 8/1/06 3:45:33 PM 40  .  the turkey need to hunt wild turkeys in the woods. Thomas Morton of Massachusetts would go out onto his porch and watch “great flocks” of turkeys sail by. When dinner was wanted all he had to do was shoot a few.4 The actual weight of wild turkeys was much discussed in colonial times. Adriaen van der Donck, a Dutchman who lived in New Amsterdam (now New York) from 1641 to 1645, reported they were “large, heavy, fat and fine, weighing from twenty to thirty pounds each, and I have heard of one that weighed thirty-two pounds.”5 William Byrd of Virginia caught a turkey that weighed thirty-four pounds.6 John Lawson, a Londoner who surveyed North Carolina beginning in 1700, told of wild turkeys weighing forty pounds, as did John Brickell.7 Morton in Massachusetts reported that he killed turkeys that “weighed forty eight pound a peece,” as did Richard Blome in Virginia.8 A visitor to Maryland shot a turkey that weighed at “neere forty-nine pounds.”9 John Clayton, the rector at Jamestown, Virginia, reported, “There be wild Turkies extream large; they talk of Turkies that have been kill’d, that have weighed betwixt fifty and sixty Pound weight.”10 The same talk of sixty-pound turkeys was heard by John Josselyn, who chronicled mid-seventeenth-century New England.11 Yet another observer was told of a sixty-three-pound bird.12 Many other observers pointed out that some turkeys were so big that they had difficulty flying. Along the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania, Christian Schultz reported in 1807 that many turkeys were “so overburdened with fat that they fly with difficulty.”13 Along the Mississippi River, James Adair noted that turkeys grew “so fat in March, that they cannot fly farther than three or four hundred yards; and not being able soon to take wing again, we speedily run them down with our horses and hunting mastiffs.”14 Of course, scales were unusual in those days and the extremely high figures were likely exaggerations, but wild turkeys were very large—much larger than domesticated turkeys of the time. If they weighed so much in the past, why do they rarely weigh more than thirty pounds today? Heavy turkeys had great difficulty flying and were much easier to catch with hunting dogs and horses. Then again, larger turkeys made easier targets and were also prized because they provided more meat. Extremely large wild turkeys did not survive the onslaught, but smaller, more nimble ones did and reproduced. In addition to weighing more, the abundance of turkeys was found virtually everywhere in great numbers throughout eastern North America. In Massachusetts , William Wood wrote of the...


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