From a bank high along the Colorado River, I have an expansive view across river bottoms, through galleries of stout cottonwoods and across the sagebrush and juniper dotted hillsides that border the river. Gaggles of geese and mixed flocks of ducks swim or loaf along beaches and sandy islands. A lone bald eagle turns slow spirals as the bird ascends the calm autumn air. A few mule deer graze in a meadow alongside the river; one of them wears a necklace of reddish bailing twine. But I’m drawn the most to a posse of wild turkeys that fade in and out of view screened by thickets of willow and tamarisk.
November may be the month that many Americans associate with turkeys, but that affiliation is a “stuffed” one. President Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving Day holiday; Congress voted in 1941 to maintain this date after Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to move the holiday to earlier in November. So in one respect, it seems apropos to watch this mixed flock of jakes and jennies, toms and hens during November.
Historically, in North America there were five subspecies of Wild Turkeys. In the Southwest, Merriam’s and Gould’s turkeys strutted through the canyons and deserts. Archaeologists believe that the Aztecs first domesticated wild turkeys sometime between 10,000-8,000 years ago. Analyzing turkey bones and coprolites (fossilized poop), researchers have determined that these domesticated birds were raised on a diet of corn, a plant the native peoples farmed.
Here in the Southwest, these birds were raised more for their feathers than for meat. Somewhere between B.C. 200 and 200 A.D., the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest also had domestic turkeys. Downy body feathers were woven into blankets or robes, and other feathers were used in rituals or ceremonies. Stiff tail feathers were used to fletch throwing spears, the rigidity of the feathers helped keep the spear in a tight flight.
The domesticated birds roamed through the pueblo villages and gardens like barnyard fowl today. Penned in at night or allowed to roost on rooftops and in trees, the turkeys became an integrated part of the Ancestral Puebloan life. Some difference of opinion exists as to the consumption of these birds by the villagers; but, if they were eaten, this did not regularly occur until around 1100 A.D.
When Spanish conquistadors entered Mexico and the Southwest, they observed this fowl practice of raising turkeys. Eventually, transported to Europe, several varieties of domestic turkey were breed from this wild stock. Native to North America, domesticated turkeys were brought back to the New World by early settlers to raise as poultry.
Native wild turkeys did not fare well with colonization and westward expansion. Hunting pressure and diseases introduced by domestic fowl took their toll. Once abundant across the country, wild turkey populations declined to roughly 30,000 birds by the early 1900s.
Through “trap and transfer” projects and game management, populations of wild turkeys have rebounded to an estimated 7 million birds today in North America. Now that is truly something to give thanks for this November.