Mark Peyton - Column Art

Let’s talk turkey. If you look that phrase up and try and find where it came from you will see a number of explanations. One is that Indians would catch or kill turkeys and use them to barter with the early colonists. If a colonist went to the Indians they would ask ,“are you here to talk turkey?” Today it means to get to the point, so… let’s talk turkey.

The bird we call a turkey originated in Mexico and Central America where it was domesticated about 800 B.C. By 200 B.C. the Navajos had domesticated turkeys in Arizona. Following the arrival of Columbus, Spanish sailors took turkeys back to Spain and Italy. From there Turkish traders, coming from the Middle East, bought some and took them to England and France where they were sold. At that point the bird got its name “turkey” from the traders.

By 1526 the birds were domesticated in England. In 1620 the Mayflower, with about 100 colonists, set sail for the “New World”. As part of the cargo they took along domesticated turkeys. Some say they released the birds, which then interbred with the native flock…but given that the colonists were starving that first winter, my guess is most, if not all, the turkeys were eaten.

We still eat them. Each year in the U.S. 270 million turkeys are processed. This Thanksgiving 45 million will be eaten in one day! In fact the demand for turkey at this time of year is so high that Tammy at Peterson’s had to place her order for this year’s Thanksgiving turkeys last May!

But, those are domestic turkeys raised in “animal factories”. What about wild turkeys?

There were wild turkeys in New England in the 1600’s. However, by 1900 almost all the wild turkeys in the entire U.S. were gone. Here in Nebraska the last one was killed in 1920. Reintroduction projects in the late 1950’s, using birds from the remaining wild flocks, were started. They have been amazingly successful. Today every state except Alaska has wild turkeys. The population grew enough that in 1962 Nebraska opened its first turkey-hunting season.

There are two distinct species of turkeys, the “wild” turkey which is found all over the world, and the ocellated turkey only found in the Yucatan Peninsula. There are five different varieties (sub-species) of wild turkeys. Here in Nebraska we have three of those varieties - the eastern turkey, the Merriam turkey, and the Rio Grande turkey. Around Gothenburg we have mainly the Merriam and the Rio Grande varieties.

A wild turkey will live three to five years. They prefer forest areas over grasslands; however, with tree rows and the expansion of forested areas along Nebraska’s rivers, they are found in all 93 counties of Nebraska and even in town.

So enjoy one of the 45 million birds eaten on Thanksgiving and pay homage to the wild variety that Benjamin Franklin felt was better than the bald eagle as a representation of the new United States.