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26 November, 2010

'Wild' Turkey

There was something on the radio yesterday about turkeys (big surprise), and how the domesticated ones, even those "introduced" to the Americas, descended from species that evolved in the Americas. It being NPR, they noted that southwestern tribes had domesticated the wild birds once upon a time. Not turning turkey lore on its head, but at least it was a nod to native people on a day that fills some of them with ambivalence, others with fear and loathing, and still others with turkey.

But a nod is but a gesture, and in fact the focus dealt more with a common trope: species brought near extension, then rescued by modern wildlife management. Recovered to the point that these birds occur well beyond their supposed ancestral range. Although the main goal of reintroducing wild turkeys was primarily to establish populations of game birds that outweigh the lead shot it took to bring them down, the story was presented as on of environmental success. Yay.

[At least it was not that tired old thing about Benjamin Franklin nominating the gobbler to be the US bird, instead of the imperial icon the eagle. And I cannot expect them to know the story of my uncle, who would step onto his porch each morning and greet the resident flock with a hale and hearty "Senators!"]

What it did not mention was that the wild turkey, even thousands of miles from the pueblos where it lived in domesticated form, was not strictly wild. Native people managed their populations, and having hunted the fowl for millenia, had to have exerted some selective pressure that altered  its evolutionary trajectory. Clearing for gardens (and for that matter, growing corn), shifting from plot to plot, and controlled burning all contributed to good turkey habitat, and the abundance of this bird in 1491 had a lot to do with how how Algonquin and other people lived. Just as the decline had a lot to do with how Anglo people lived.

But enough about that. You clicked on this because of Wild Turkey the drink, the kickin' chicken, the amber river that took Hunter Thompson to his muse. Or maybe because you thought I'd include that gonzo piece about a wild turkey that I've hinted at. Maybe I'll do that next.

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