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A Closer Look at Our Gobbling Gallinaceous Thanksgiving Mascot, the Turkey

Kranthi Remala
Although the turkey is often associated with the first meal at Plymouth in the 17th century, it wasn't transformed into our traditional Thanksgiving mascot until the late 19th century.

While the image of a turkey is widely synonymous with Thanksgiving due to their alleged spot on the Plymouth colonists' table, the snood-edbird didn't gain this symbolic status until the 19th century. Land Between the Lakes' lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, visits Sounds Good to discuss these deceivingly intelligent birds, their history in the upcoming holiday, and where to see them in LBL.

Pollpeter explains that turkeys' synonymity with Thanksgiving is due to the bird being "supposedly one of the food items that they had at the first Thanksgiving. The odd thing about it is is that - whether it was a wild turkey or a domestic turkey, I do not know which one they served - the story behind turkey and turkey domestication takes place right here in the United States and, actually, Mexico. It was one of the only animals that was domesticated by Native Americans in this country. The turkey was actually domesticated twice in North America. One by the Anasazi...the four corners, the southwest United States, and by the Aztecs. When the conquistadors came into Aztec territory, they found the turkeys, and they liked it. They took it back to Spain, and it spread throughout Europe quite a bit. Then, as people in the 1600s came to the United States, they brought the turkey back to the Northeast. That could be where our first Thanksgiving turkey came from, so it kind of made a big round trip around the Atlantic Ocean."

While there is evidence of a meal shared between Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth colony and local Wampanoag Native Americans in late 1621, the Pilgrims are documented by colonist Edward Winslowto have provided wild "fowl." Fowl could have meant turkeys, which were native to the area that is now Massachusetts, but historians believe it was probably ducks or geese. Winslow's fellow colonist, William Bradford, did refer to a "great store of wild Turkies" at Plymouth that fall. When Winslow's letter and Bradford's comments were reprinted in an 1856 collection of Plymouth writing, the connection between the gobbling birds and the national holiday was cemented into American culture.

The ambiguity of the actual first meal at Plymouth is muddled further by the similarities between turkeys and other gallinaceous birds. "[Chickens] and turkeys are very closely related. They all belong to the same family," Pollpeter explains. "[Gallinaceous birds] are a large group of birds that are pretty easy to pick out all throughout the world because they're the ones who have all the funny parts of their body, they're very showy, they have lots of colorful feathers. So chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, I believe peacocks fall into that [category], guineas, are some of the different ones that fall into this particular group of birds. They are all kind of unique because they have colorful feathers, they do big displays to attract females, a lot of times they have weird sounds that they might make. We're all familiar with the gobble of a turkey, for instance."

Much like their distant relative, the bald eagle, turkeys were once endangered of being wiped out entirely. "They were almost killed by something called market hunting," Pollpeter explains. "By 1900, there were only a few thousand in each state. In Land Between the Lakes, they thought there were only maybe as low as eight of them. Private individuals and conservation organizations were able to bring them back. In fact, one of the main reasons why the Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge was created in Land Between the Lakes in the 1930s was to help protect turkeys and bring up other game species, like deer, back into the Land Between the Lakes area."

The Land Between the Lakes Woodlands Nature Station is home to the domesticated variety of turkeys, but this surprisingly makes them less friendly than their wild counterparts. "At the nature station, the turkeys that we have can actually be quite mean. They are imprinted turkeys, so they see us as fellow turkeys and will try to correct our behavior in aggressive ways sometimes. Certain animals, when they hatch and they see a person when they hatch out, [can] kind of imprint upon [the humans] as 'mother.' These turkeys [at LBL] were given to us very young. They were rescued. They saw humans as their caretakers and their fellow species. They know that they're turkeys, but they don't know that necessarily we're not ugly turkeys. A lot of times, they react to us or work with us in captivity," Pollpeter says.

"But turkeys out there in the wild are definitely not something people need to worry about because they just book it anytime you're in the woods. One of the best moments I've ever had with a flock of wild turkeys is I was doing a bird survey, and a giant flock of wild turkeys flew up. It sounded like a herd of elephants just running through the forest," Pollpeter laughs. "It was quite terrifying for about a few seconds. Then once you calm down and figure out, it was just turkeys, you kind of laugh."

"Working with turkeys and just kind of studying them as we do, they are a fascinating animal. A lot of times, they get credit for being dumb. You know, if it's raining outside, they're going to stick their mouth up and drown, and of course, that's not true. I think any turkey hunter would tell you that they're one of the hardest animals to hunt because they are wary," Pollpeter says. "They have great eyesight. They have good hearing, they're very good at putting two and two together, that this is not a good place to be and getting the heck out of there. There's a lot of intelligence there." Even cleanliness - "a turkey, kind of like your chickens, they're really good about taking care of themselves in the yard...they're going to pick up seeds, they're going to eat worms, they're going to eat nuts...frogs...caterpillars...ticks," he adds. 

"The main, fun thing about turkeys is, especially when you come to Land Between the Lakes, is seeing turkeys in Land Between the Lakes in the winter is quite common. It's a great time to see them because a lot of times, you'll see them in these large, giant flocks, maybe 50, 60 birds in it. To see a whole flock of them cross the road or fly all at the same time or foraging amongst the trees can be quite a fun sight to see," Pollpeter concludes. 

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.
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