Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

With my apologies to WKRP’s Arthur Carlson, wild turkeys can fly

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Newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) of the fictional radio station, WKRP, broadcasts from the Pinedale Shopping Mall during the infamous “Turkey Drop” promotion.

As Americans, we all have our holiday traditions. Many of us will come together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving with lavish meals shared with family and friends. I will carve out a half-hour niche to watch one of my favorite holiday sitcom episodes.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Wild turkeys are slender, swift and fully capable of flight.

Not surprisingly, there’s an element linked to birds in the episode, which is often cited as one of the most ingenious sitcom episodes in the history of television. The episode is “Turkeys Away” from the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom that aired from 1978 to 1982 and revolved around the antics of the staff of a down-and-out radio station. The “Turkeys Away” episode originally aired Oct. 30, 1978, early in the first season of the series. I especially like that every member of the ensemble cast was woven into the storyline for this classic Thanksgiving episode.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                              Wild turkeys are well equipped to survive in the wild, unlike their domesticated kin.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                  A flock of Wild turkeys forage for food hidden beneath a light snow cover.

In the event there are readers who haven’t seen the episode, I’ll try to avoid any blatant spoilers. The action involves a radio promotion that, in hindsight, was destined for disaster. The episode unfolds at the perfect pace, finally culminating in a hilarious series of scenes as the promotion backfires in spectacular fashion. I’ve memorized most of the lines of dialogue, but I still enjoy hearing them delivered by the talented actors Richard Sanders, Loni Anderson, Howard Hesseman and the late Gordon Jump. It’s Jump that gets the pivotal line with his perfectly delivered, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”

It’s that classic line that provides my segue into the subject of this week’s column, which is America’s wild turkey. I sometimes wonder if my favorite episode of WKRP, which aired nearly 40 years ago, has had some influence in persuading many people that turkeys cannot fly. It’s a widely held misconception that the wild turkey cannot fly. The turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour.

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A wild turkey hen accompanies her poults to forage for food.

On the other hand, the domesticated barnyard turkey is a fowl of a completely different kind than its wild cousin. Although the wild turkey — the largest of North America’s game birds — can weigh as much as 37 pounds, it’s the domestic turkey that holds the record as a heavyweight. The largest domestic turkey on record tipped the scales at 86 pounds. That bird certainly could have provided an ample banquet for your Thanksgiving meal. Domestic turkeys are bred to be big, which as a result means they are incapable of flight and are also poor runners. Of course, these domestic kin of the wild turkeys don’t face a gauntlet of predators.

Wild turkeys face various perils at all points in their life cycles, from eggs to newly-hatched young to adult birds. Turkey eggs are a favorite food of such wild animals as raccoons, skunks, opossums and some snakes. Young turkeys, known as poults, are often the prey of domestic dogs and cats, as well as a range of raptors, as well as birds such as crows and ravens. Larger predators — bobcats, cougars, coyotes, foxes and eagles — prey on adult turkeys.

I remember the first time that I observed wild turkeys in flight. I was driving near Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough, Tennessee, when about a dozen large, dark birds flew across the road just above the roof of my vehicle. I was definitely perplexed as my mind worked to figure out the identity of these birds. I had almost settled on vultures, although the flight pattern had been all wrong, when I saw that some of these flyers had landed in a field adjacent to the road. On the ground, they were easily recognized as wild turkeys.

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Photo by Robert Burton/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                    The wild turkey gobbler puts on an elaborate display to impress hens.

I was prepared when I encountered another flock at Boone Lake in Sullivan County, Tennessee. I surprised the flock, which was trapped between me and the lake. After a moment of hesitancy, the members of the flock flew across the cove. Landing on the other side, they apparently felt secure to have a gulf of water between them and me. I was impressed by the fact that such large birds can look powerful and even somewhat graceful during a short burst of flight.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The wild bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe. The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata, which ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The extent of this fowl’s range is only about 50,000 square miles while the wild turkey ranges throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Ocellated Turkey ranges throughout Mexico and Central America.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. In fact, the turkey came close to being named the official bird of the United States. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was distraught when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion, and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor of first-rate caliber.

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Benjamin Franklin supported the Wild Turkey as the nation’s official bird.

It’s simply too bad that Jump’s character in WKRP, bumbling but amiable station manager Arthur Carlson, lacked some crucial knowledge about the differences between wild turkeys and their domestic relatives. If he had gathered a flock of wild turkeys instead of directing his sales manager to acquire domestic fowl, his radio promotion might not have been such a stupendous flop. Of course, we would then have never had this classic episode of comedic television, and I wouldn’t have my familiar Thanksgiving ritual to enjoy annually.

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The talented cast of the vintage television sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati.

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                      The wild turkey is a tough, wary and hardy fowl.

Wild turkey epitomizes rugged determination of the American spirit

A Wild Turkey is ama amazingly resilient bird, capable of surviving in a variety of habitats.

A Wild Turkey is an amazingly resilient bird, capable of surviving in a variety of habitats.

Americans will come together this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, so I thought I’d focus this week’s column on the wild turkey.

It’s usually in early November that I begin encountering wild turkey flocks, whether I’m in the field to look for birds or simply driving to and from work. I saw a group of four wild turkeys on Nov. 4 as they foraged in a field near my home. Over the years, I’ve also found other locations that are dependable for turkey sightings. In some areas, flocks comprised of dozens or even hundreds of turkeys are commonplace.

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This bird, one of the last Passenger Pigeons, was photographed in 1899.

Surprisingly, despite its current abundance across North America, the wild turkey almost didn’t survive the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 wild turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and America’s only wild parakeet almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed the wild turkey, another uniquely American bird.

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The same market forces that slaughtered Passenger Pigeons nearly decimated America’s Wild Turkey, too.

Ironically, the wild turkey’s valued status as a gamebird helped persuade many Americans to fight for its conservation. It’s an effort that succeeded admirably. Today, there are about seven million wild turkeys roaming North America. The wild turkey is now abundant enough to be legally hunted in most states, including Virginia and Tennessee.

Interest in the wild turkey as a game bird has even inspired the establishment of the National Wild Turkey Federation, which is a national nonprofit organization that serves as a leader in upland wildlife habitat conservation in North America. The NWTF was founded in 1973 in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The NWTF is now headquartered in Edgefield, South Carolina, and has local chapters in every state. The NWTF remains dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of a sustainable hunting heritage.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A flock of turkeys forage for food while a few of the males, or Toms, display to attract the attention of females in the flock.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A flock of turkeys forage for food while a few of the males, or Toms, display to attract the attention of females in the flock.

The wild turkey, for which the NWTF was formed, is a large bird. Males, or tom turkeys, can reach a length of 46 inches, weigh 16 pounds and boast a wingspan of 60 inches. It’s a widely held misconception that the wild turkey cannot fly. The turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour.

The female turkey, or hen, nests, incubates eggs and rears young without any help from her mate. The hen may lay as many as a dozen eggs. The clutch usually hatches within a month. Newly-hatched turkeys are known as poults. The poults are capable of finding their own food after leaving the nest, which they do within 12 hours of hatching. They are supervised, however, by the hen. Wild turkeys require a mixture of woodlands with clearings and fields to thrive. They roost in trees at night, but feed in more open habitats.

Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this wild turkey hen accompanied by her poults, or young.

Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this wild turkey hen accompanied by her poults, or young.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The wild bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe.

The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata, which ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The extent of this fowl’s range is only about 50,000 square miles while the wild turkey ranges throughout the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico. Tail feathers in both sexes are bluish-gray in color with a well defined, eye-shaped, blue-bronze colored spot near the end followed by a bright gold tip. These “eyespots” in the feathers provide the basis for the use of the term “ocellated” in this fowl’s common name. The tail feather spots are reminiscent of those seen in peacock feathers.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. In fact, the turkey came close to being named the official bird of the United States.

Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was distraught when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion, and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The Wild Turkey has become closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Wild Turkey has become closely associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.

If not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor.

Here’s some additional turkey trivia:

• The Aztecs first domesticated the wild turkey. Spaniards brought this tamed fowl back to Europe with them in the mid-16th century and from Spain, domestic turkeys spread to France and later Britain as a farmyard animal.

• At Thanksgiving, humans consume many turkeys. In the wild, turkeys are preyed upon by coyotes, bobcats, cougars, golden eagles, great horned owls and red foxes.

• Today, the wild turkey population stands at about 7 million. This bird, an adaptable species, now thrives in suburban areas, as well as the rural countryside.

• The feathers of turkeys were important in Native American cultures. Tribes as diverse as the Sioux, the Wampanoag, the Powhatan and the Hopi all wore turkey feathers or used feathers in their rituals.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The thaw after a snow makes it easier for wild turkeys to forage for food.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The thaw after a snow makes it easier for wild turkeys to forage for food.

• Turkeys belong to an order of birds known as the galliformes, which includes grouse, ptarmigans, pheasants, quail, partridges and chickens. The only other native galliformes in the regions are ruffed grouse and Northern bobwhite.

• The wild turkey is the largest of North America’s game birds. The largest wild turkey on record weighed 37 pounds, but a domestic turkey holds the record, tipping the scales at 86 pounds. That bird certainly could have fed a lot of people gathered around the Thanksgiving dining table.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A decorate turkey pays homage to the real bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A decorative turkey made from plywood and a haybale pays homage to the real bird.