Meleagris gallopavo, or a brief history of the American turkey

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 24, 2003

On Thursday, Nov. 27, most of the families in Selma, indeed, in America, will sit down to a festive meal with its main course &045; TURKEY, the species Meleagris gallopavo!

As the great bird is carved into serving-size slices, few if any of those present will wonder at its origin, although all of those present associate turkey with the Pilgrims, Indians and the first Thanksgiving feast.

Winslow also states that the Indian King Massasoit brought 90 men, who killed five deer to add to the feast. So, in addition to the venison there were ducks, geese, turkeys and swans in the fowl killed by the four hunters.

By the way, that first feast was never repeated, but it has become a model for our own Thanksgiving celebration. Much of the available information about the feast is the result of research at Plimoth Plantation, the living museum in Plymouth, Mass.

So, the menu has been pieced together from this research.

One dish served as dessert is Furmenty, a wheat pudding on the order of an Indian pudding. Its ingredients include cracked wheat, mace, milk, cinnamon, brown sugar, heavy cream and eggs.

But about turkey, there is no doubt. The Pilgrims’ turkey would have been a wild one, of the species avidly hunted in season still. This largest game bird in North America once was so widespread it was considered for the U.S. national emblem.

Male turkeys gobble all year round, but in spring they are easily startled and will gobble at any abrupt noise. Today, this symbol of a national holiday is becoming common again due to conservation efforts and its own adjustments to changes in its original woodland habitat.

The wild turkey’s gobble may be heard up to a mile away and is easily imitated, with a bird often responding to a human turkey caller.

The wild turkey has a powerful muscular gizzard (commonly chopped in today’s gravy after cooking), which can grind the hardest food. They eat nuts, seeds, large insects, frogs, lizards, wild fruits and grapes.

Wild turkeys fly to tree roosts for the night. The male displays by strutting with tail spread, wings drooped to ground, bare skin of head intensified in color and frequent gobbling.

Thus the origin of a favorite Thanksgiving song: &uot;There’s a big, fat turkey down on grandfather’s farm and he thinks he’s very gay. He spreads his tail into a great big fan and he struts around all day.&uot;

As for breeding, they are polygamous.

Female turkeys have one brood per year, with the incubation about 27-28 days. The nestling’s first flight is in about 14 days. The nest is lined with a few dead leaves and grass, built on the ground concealed under shrubs or in tall grasses. A hen lays 8-20 white to cream or buff eggs, 2.5 inches long, sometimes blotched or spotted with brown or red.

The wild turkey population is rare in some areas to fairly common in others. Wild birds are unlikely in areas of human habitation although sighting a flock on the verge of a wooded road is not unusual in the rural Black Belt. They are becoming more widely domesticated and their number is increasing.

As in most wild species, the male is by far the more colorful of the genders. His length is 37 to 46 inches, his wingspan 4-5 feet and his weight about 16 pounds. His head is bare, colored pink and blue, and his large iridescent dark body glistens with greens and bronzes. His wattles are red, his breast tuft known as the beard is black and his pinkish legs are spurred. His barred flight feathers are white. In full strut he is truly beautiful.

The female is smaller, usually lacks a beard, duller in color and less iridescent than the male.

However, on the dining tables of Selma Thursday, the color of both male and female is a bronzed brown, and never a gobble, gobble shall be heard.