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On This Thanksgiving, Celebrating The Wild Turkey


Wild turkeys are a conservation success story in this country. As Washington Post reporter Michael S. Rosenwald noted last week, only 60 years ago fewer than half a million wild turkeys lived in the United States. The number now exceeds seven million.

This species revival came about, in part, through deployment of what's called a rocket-propelled net. Rosenwald says that the method was first tried back in the 1950s, in South Carolina:

"A large net was concealed on the ground. Turkeys were baited to the area. The net was then remotely propelled over the turkeys with small rockets. Nabbed. The method was replicated around the country. Trapped turkeys were moved to areas where they had been wiped out, with the idea that they would, you know, do their thing. They did do their thing."

More than triumphant breeders, these birds are fascinating in both body and behavior. A wild turkey can run up to 25 miles per hour and, once airborne, may zoom about at more than twice that speed.

They can be curious, smart and sweet animals. In the terrific PBS Nature documentary "My Life as a Turkey," a man named Joe Hutto raises a small group of wild turkeys from hatchlings to adulthood. Sharing their lives, Hutto learns as much from the turkeys as they do from him. At one point (see 19:37), he describes the young birds' obsession for revisiting dead animals in their habitat and trying, through observation and probing of the bones, to work out what they are seeing. This behavior isn't about food or predation, "It's about understanding the world," Hutto says.

Hutto sums up his experience with the turkeys this way:

"Each day as I leave the confines of my language and culture, these creatures seem to become in every way my superiors. They're more alert, sensitive, and aware. They're in many ways more intelligent. Their understanding of the forest is beyond my ability to comprehend."

Of course, no one is sweet all the time — and wild turkeys are no exception. As their population numbers increase, and they more often wander into our cities and suburbs, turkeys may bring with them an attitude. In this short clip (hat tip again to Rosenwald at the Post), a persistent wild turkey rattles a TV reporter in an amusing way:

If turkeys could comprehend human holidays, Thanksgiving surely wouldn't be their favorite. For people consuming turkeys on this day, it's not the wild ones who grace the holiday tables, but instead their domesticated counterparts. Bred for large breasts and meat-rich legs, these turkeys are pretty fascinating, too, and don't deserve their reputation as dumb animals.

On this day, it is fitting to celebrate the turkey and, in a bit of turnabout, fair play, to highlight a turkey getting the upper hand. And it's fitting, too, for me to wish all 13.7 readers — omnivores, pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans alike — a safe, warm and happy Thanksgiving.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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