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Today in
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September 24
1997 - Redevelopment of Old Town Newhall begins with groundbreaking of Railroad Avenue improvements [story]

Back to Nature
| Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

paullevineToday is Thanksgiving, and the main course on many tables is turkey. While the turkey is not native to Southern California, it can sometimes be seen here having escaped or been released from farms and sanctuaries.

Wild native turkeys – the only native poultry in North America – had been raised by Indians in many parts of North America. They are different from the domesticated turkeys raised for the family feast. Domesticated turkeys are white rather than brown in color, are usually larger than the wild turkey, and cannot fly.

Wild turkeys are related to pheasants and grouse. They are large, plump birds with long legs, wide rounded tails and a small head on top of a long slim neck. Their coloring is dark with a bronze-green iridescence to most of their plumage. They often have bars of white coloring. They have bare skin on their head. The fleshy skin hanging down from their neck is called a wattle, and the skin arising on top of their beak and hanging over the beak is a snood. Both the wattle and snood become more intensely red when they become excited.

Wild turkeys are native to North America and although found primarily in the East and Midwest as well as extending into Mexico, there are colonies establishing themselves in the West, as they have been released to these areas. They travel in flocks and search the ground for nuts, berries, insects and snails. They can often be heard scratching the leaf litter for seeds and insects before they can be seen, and one must look real carefully to see them.

They live in forests and will roost in trees at night to protect them from predators such as coyotes, raccoons and wildcats. Hence, wild turkeys can fly, although they don’t fly long distances.

Some interesting facts about turkeys and Thanksgiving:

Figure 2-Turkey The males are called “toms” or “gobblers” because it is only the male that makes the “gobble-gobble” sound. Hens (female turkeys) cluck but cannot gobble. During mating season, the males spread their tail feathers like peacocks, puff out their chest and strut about, shaking their feathers all in an attempt convince a beautiful young hen to mate with it. Indeed, the Turkey Trot dance comes from the way the turkey struts about during mating season.

Turkeys have excellent hearing but no external ears. They can also see in color, and during the daytime, their vision is excellent with a 270-degree field of vision, making it difficult to sneak up on a turkey. This is because their eyes are on the sides of their head. With slight turn of their head, they can see all around them.

Since they are large birds with a long neck, they can hide in tall grasses with their head just above the top of the grass to let them look around, much like a periscope on a submarine. But despite this good vision during the daytime, turkeys have poor night vision and hence will only forage during the daytime. They roost in trees at night for protection. To get into the trees, they must be able to fly.

While their hearing is excellent despite the lack of external ears and their vision is good, their sense of smell is poor.

A turkey hen with two poults (recently hatched chicks).

A turkey hen with two poults (recently hatched chicks).

A newly hatched turkey is called a poult. A 16-week-old turkey is called a fryer, and a 5- to 7-month-old turkey is called a young roaster.

There are a number of explanations circulating as to how this large bird that we now call a turkey got its name. One explanation is that Christopher Columbus, who believed he had sailed to Asia rather than discovering a new continent now called America, thought this large bird was related to the peacock. In the Tamil language in India, a peacock is called a “tuka,” so he called it a “tuka,” which became “turkey.”

Other Europeans who first encountered wild turkeys in America misidentified it as a form of Guinea fowl, and in Europe the Guinea fowl was imported to central Europe through Turkey and were known as turkey fowl. In America, the name was shortened to turkey.

A Native American name for this bird is “firkee,” which sounds close to “turkey.” Another possibility is that when the bird is scared, it makes the sound, “turk, turk, turk,” providing yet another explanation for how this large bird got its name. Readers are encouraged either to choose the explanation they like best or come up with one of their own.

A turkey in tall grass is able to look over the grass to spot potential predators.

A turkey in tall grass is able to look over the grass to spot potential predators.

While the bald eagle is our national bird and national emblem, Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to have this honor.

In 1550, the English navigator William Strickland brought turkeys from the New World and introduced them to England. The coat of arms for his family included a “turkey cock.”

The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast held in Plymouth, Mass., by the Pilgrims in conjunction with the local Indians, the Wampanoags, but it did not include turkey on the menu. The first Thanksgiving feast is believed to have included lobster, rabbit, chicken, fish, squash, beans, various nuts, vegetables, eggs and goat cheese but not turkey, much less the other trimmings that are common today including mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, corn on the cob and cranberries.

Indians in different parts of America were known to have raised and cultivated wild turkeys for food for many centuries prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival in America. Turkeys are also native to Mexico, and the Aztec Indians were raising them as early as 200 B.C.

Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln. It was initially the last Thursday of November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday of November, in an effort to extend the Christmas shopping season. In recent years, even without a presidential proclamation, it seems commerce starts the Christmas shopping season with Halloween rather than waiting for Thanksgiving to end.

Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live turkey to the president of the United States who pardons it, allowing it to live out its life on an historic farm.

For domestic turkeys, it takes 76 to 80 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound tom turkey. The heaviest turkey ever raised was 86 pounds.

Americans consume 4.2 billion pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving Day, or roughly 280 million birds with an average weight of 15 pounds.

A 15-pound turkey has roughly 70 percent white meat and 30 percent dark meat.

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