As some 45 million turkeys come to terms with their own mortality at the insistence of the poultry-industrial complex this month, it seems as good a time as any for a review of this distinctly American bird. Well, this mostly American bird – Canada, Mexico, and Central America are home to some subspecies. And they’ve been spotted in Europe (transplanted, ex-patria all). Basically, turkeys are American in the way that basketball is American – the phenomenon originated here and is absolutely woven into the existential fabric of our country1, but occasionally our hand-picked turkey Dream Team will inexplicably lose in the Olympic semifinals to Greece. Still, we own this thing.
Portrait of the artist as a young fryer.
The turkey most of us know today (corpulent, encased in reinforced plastic, its severed neck and a sack of its vital organs conveniently inserted into its own chest cavity by the helpful folks at Butterball) is a domesticated descendant of Meleagris gallopavo (lit. ‘Preheat oven to 250’), commonly known as the wild turkey. And although both domesticated and wild turkeys go perfectly with cranberry sauce and vitriolic political arguments with your entire extended family – there are some notable differences.
The single most important distinction is that wild turkeys can fly – at respectable speeds up to 50 miles per hour. By contrast, while their portly domesticated counterparts are genetically built for flying – and tend to flap their wings in some vestigial memory of flight – they find themselves perpetually grounded by a staunch, well-organized group who call themselves The Universal Laws of Physics. Simply put, domesticated turkeys are way too fat to slip the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of God. For most of these animals, it would be too much to ask for them to touch their toes. Thus you will find fighter jets with names like F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor, but you will never watch a squadron of F-24 Domesticated Turkeys buzz the Rose Bowl, trailing tight curls of super-heated stuffing-flavored exhaust from their afterburners. Clearly, the Air Force Naming Team knows what’s up.2
Another key difference is that wild turkeys can actually run at about 20 mph. This capacity, along with keen eyesight, a quick-to-panic mentality, and the aforementioned ability to fly earn wild turkeys a great deal of respect from bird hunters throughout the country, though this esteem is not enjoyed by the domesticated turkey for patently obvious reasons.
‘Running? Nah. Too boring. Plus it hurts my knees.’
But ask any well-experienced hunter about wild turkey hunting, and he will mostly likely chuckle, stroke his chin, adjust his belt that not only clasps his jean shorts taut but also holds his massive cell phone in a leather pouch with a Velcro seal, and then say, ‘That’s why there are supermarkets.’ Then he’ll wait for you to laugh at his joke, and you’ll let out a forced chuckle. Then you’ll look at the floor, confused, and only then will you realize that he means that hunting turkey is very hard. Now late to the joke party, you’ll say, ‘It’s tough, huh?’ And he’ll say, ‘Yup. You gotta be totally camouflaged, including your gun, tied to a tree, hoping they don’t run off before you get a shot. The calls take too long to learn. They’re very smart and they’re not easily fooled. Better you just go to the market and buy one.’ Then you’ll thank him for his time, grab your Department of Fish and Game map, and leave his sporting goods store as quickly as possible.
Whoever coined the term ‘turkey shoot’ never met Ned.
Back to domesticated turkeys, it turns out that being flightless, overweight and unable to run from impending decapitation is not the end of their problems. To add insult to injury, we humans also openly mock them as stupid. And not just in the plain old ‘You’re-a-domesticated-turkey-so-what-do-you-know?’ way – but as deeply and profoundly dim. In fact, the term ‘turkey’ has become such a generalized insult that the wild variety resent their domesticated cousins more and more each year, to the point that wild turkeys undertook the process of legally changing their name to Smith a dozen years ago but were rebuffed by the awful mess they made of the paperwork.
The clerk barely got through the first page before giving up.
Even as we plot to preserve their juiciness in the oven, we still perpetuate undignified rumors about turkeys, perhaps to ameliorate our guilt over eating them, perhaps to just make ourselves feel smarter. Here’s one rumor widely-whispered: Turkeys are so dumb they will stare up into a rainstorm until they drown. Here’s another: Turkeys consistently confuse astrology with astronomy. Not a good sign.
While the latter may be true, it’s also true of many animals. And as to the first rumor, it’s simply untrue that the turkey is dumb enough to drown itself. This has been confirmed by poultry scientist Tom Savage of Oregon State University who was the first to realize that an underlying genetic abnormality called tetanic torticollar spasms causes turkeys to look up at the sky for no apparent reason – a behavior that’s roughly akin to an uncontrollable nervous tic – not a sign of stupidity. Having proven this, Dr. Savage then concluded his paper with the sentence ‘Well, that wasn’t a horrible waste of research dollars at all.’
In short, the turkey has gotten a bum rap, most of it due to people’s decision to domesticate a great number of them. These soft, sad birds are like obese teenagers who look lazy, shiftless, and weak – but the truth is that the fault lies with us. We gave them too many calories and stopped expecting them to toughen up or exercise – and then mock the result, when we really are just angry with ourselves. One need only look out towards the impressive wild turkey to see its true potential. Would that we let them develop it. In the meantime, there’s a ton of leftover turkey in the fridge if you want any. Assuming you can manage to get off the couch.
(A for taste)
1To the point that Benjamin Franklin proposed it as the national bird, though as anyone who’s read much about Franklin’s later-life habits – or gazed at a picture of him in his coonskin cap – would agree that, whatever his many qualities, aesthetics was not among them.
2Being assigned to the Naming Team is the plum job in the Air Force, since it requires actual work only once every seven to twelve years when a new airplane is introduced. It’s nearly impossible to get, so don’t bother. And if a recruiter promises that he can get you a guaranteed slot on the Naming Team if you just agree to sign here, here, here, here, here, and here – then rest assured, he’s definitely tricking you, and you’re probably going to end up in the Never-Ending Pushup Squadron.