In a few days’ time millions of families across Britain will be tucking into freshly roasted turkey – our nation’s traditional Christmas fare. Yet few of those devouring these plump birds will realise that this huge game-bird is actually native to North America, where it is still eagerly hunted for its delicious meat.
All domesticated turkeys are descended from the wild turkey, one of two species in this impressive bird family living wild in the Americas, with the more brightly-coloured occellated turkey being restricted to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
It appears that wild turkeys was first brought into Britain in the 1500s, with the navigator William Strickland being awarded a coat of arms incorporating the bird for being the first person to import the species into England.
Wild turkeys are currently widely distributed across southern Canada, the USA and northern Mexico, being most widespread in the eastern United States. In contrast to the mainly white plumage of domesticated turkeys, their wild counterparts have a dark, mottled appearance with many iridescent feathers. The males or ‘gobblers’ are larger than the females and have a more colourful head and neck area.
The wild turkey was one of over 400 bird species illustrated in John James Audubon’s monumental book The Birds of North America, which was printed in Edinburgh and London and published in sections from 1827 onwards. This huge publication was first issued in ‘double elephant’ size and is now highly sought after by the most wealthy book collectors, with the latest copy to be sold at auction fetching an incredible £7.3 million – a record for a printed book.
My own turkey-hunting expeditions have been confined to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where my aunt and uncle have lived for many years. Here, the turkeys seek sanctuary for much of the day within the dense forests that clothe the slopes of this beautiful mountain range.
In order to see them it is necessary to head out before dawn and drive along some of the quiet back-roads that crisscross the area, in the hope that a flock will overcome their natural shyness and venture out onto the roadside in search of food.
The reason for their secretive behaviour is, of course, hunting pressure since turkeys are widely eaten in the USA – most notably on Thanksgiving Day – and hunting remains a very popular pastime across much of the country.