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THE PROUD BIRD : Uncommon Fowl

November 20, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Every Thanksgiving, it seems, we hear how Benjamin Franklin lobbied for the turkey as our national bird. This is not exactly true. His allegiance to the turkey was never proclaimed in any official petition, but is found in a letter to his daughter Sarah, written after a trip to France. The French, he wrote, found America's choice of the national bird odd, precisely because the bald eagle looked too much like a turkey.

Franklin, never one to pass up the opportunity for a comic rant, went on: "I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country; he is a Bird of bad moral Character . . . like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing, he is generally poor and often very lousy (louse-ridden). Besides, he is a rank Coward; the little Kingbird , not bigger than a Sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. . . ."

Disgusted as he is by the bald eagle, Franklin finds one thing pleasing, even desirable about the national bird: its resemblance to the turkey.

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"For in Truth, the Turk'y is in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries but the Turk'y was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv'd up at the Wedding Table of Charles the Ninth. He is, though, a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his FarmYard with red coat on."

Franklin is correct about the turkey being a true American native: In fact, it is the one and only important domestic animal to have originated in North America. Franklin is not so accurate about when turkeys were introduced to Europe, but shared a then-prevalent belief that they were brought from the New World by Loyola. (Some folks even called turkeys "Jesuits," an appellation that the writer Alexander Dumas considered insulting to the birds.)

More likely, domestic turkeys were brought to Europe by Spanish explorers who had found barnyard turkeys in all parts of Mexico and Central America, where Aztecs and Tarascans in particular kept large numbers for feathers and meat. These turkeys were brought to Europe as a food source, and were then reintroduced to Northeastern America by colonists. (Meanwhile, domesticated turkeys continued to be grown in the Southwest Native American cultures.)

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Franklin is right about turkey's natural feistiness: This writer has personally experienced it, having been terrorized as a child by two cruel toms at an uncle's farm. And last year, the small town of Holliston, Mass., was invaded by a pesky flock of 17 wild turkeys led by a dominant male that citizens named Tom or Tommy. The flock chased children, accosted adults and blocked traffic. When a housewife went to shoo the flock out of her garden, Tommy chased her back into the house.

In general, however, today's Thanksgiving bird won't be chasing anybody anyplace. Turkeys have always been easily domesticated, and it has been so easy to develop new breeds and strains quickly that aggressiveness, as well as many other more desirable traits--such as the ability to run, hop, resist diseases and mate--are no longer found in today's farm flocks. In fact, to see what we human beings have required from the turkey, one need only look to the differences between a wild and domestic bird.

The basic distinction can be seen at the La Purisima Mission, a few miles east of Lompoc. There, in one pasture, are a wild tom and two wild hens and a domestic Bronze turkey, all about the same age, a little more than a year. The wild turkeys are part of the Mission's effort to keep a few animals typical to missionary times.

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The wild turkeys look like enormous pheasants, only without the pheasant's resplendent coloration. Still, the wild birds' plumage is a burnished, glossy black with rippling iridescences of copper, indigo, and emerald and white stippling on the tail. The wild tom has a perky beard of hair-like feathers protruding from the middle of his chest--it adds a certain jaunty flourish to his strut. He stands about three feet tall. Hens are notably more petite and less colorful.

Both the wild and the domestic turkeys have bluish naked heads covered with warty red carbuncles and a few wiry whiskers--surely, bald eagles aren't this ugly. Red wattles cluster at the throat and eventually, over years, accumulate into a mass that resembles great gobs of red candle drippings. In the meantime, the necks of these young birds, only as thick as a garden hose, seem particularly vulnerable.

And then, slung over the nose, there's the thong of red flesh called a snood or cere, a feature most pronounced in the males. When the turkey is worried, alerted, or curious, the snood retracts to a stiff, tapered, finger-like point that twitches and curls as if reading the breeze.

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