Why turkey on Thanksgiving?

The Nature Lover

Why turkey on Thanksgiving?Kelly Cosner of Far Haven Farm in Inyokern raises the popular Thanksgiving birds each fall for families who enjoy farm-fresh birds for their holiday feasts — Photo by Laura Austin

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By DAN BURNETT

Every year as I sit down for my traditional Thanksgiving dinner, for some reason, I ponder a bit on the main dish. Some time ago I looked up the history of this bird and found that it evolved in the Americas and was brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadores who “discovered” it.

The earliest Spanish invaders found this bird in abundance in Mexico, not in the wild but in the markets of the Aztecs. It was raised by native people throughout the Americas and formed a staple in their diet. Its remains have been found in countless archeological digs from the far north to the far south in the Americas.

Introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 1500s, by 1600 the turkey was so common in Europe that, when Shakespeare mentioned it in his plays, he didn’t need to clarify to what he was referring. This would imply that the Pilgrims were already familiar with this bird when it was brought to them by the first Americans for the first Thanksgiving dinner.

Domesticated for thousands of years, the bird that sits before us on T-day is a far cry from the one the Spanish found. The roasted bird before you has been so refined through careful breeding that today it is nothing more than a huge breast on hearty legs. This flavorful “fowl” is incapable of living outside of the factory farms where it is raised.

The bird in its native form can be found in our local environs. A few years ago a group of 5th graders on a Sand Canyon Environmental Education Program (SEEP) field trip were entertained by one that seemed to follow them around for much of the day.

Turkeys are very common in the Kern River valley area but are somewhat secretive, freeze when scared and are well-camouflaged so are hard to spot.

The wild bird is classified in a family of ground-feeding birds that is believed to be among the oldest of bird families still existing today.

Most bird guides are arranged in taxonomical order, with the oldest species first, so you will find this bird and its cousins near the front of most bird guides. This family of birds (Phasianidae) includes grouse, quail, pheasant and other “game birds.” The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is truly an American (North and South) bird.

So, why is it named after a middle-eastern country, Turkey? (More gravy please.)

Story First Published: 2018-11-21