Turkey History

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In the late 1700s Benjamin Franklin suggested the wild turkey be made our national symbol. It would have been a fitting choice. Native only to North America, the tom turkey, with its colorful head, is as red, white and blue as apple pie and baseball.

In the pre-settlement days, some 10 million turkeys roamed the eastern region of what is now the United States. All those birds played a key role in the physical and spiritual well-being of our country’s early inhabitants.

Turkeys were a major food source of many American Indians, though some tribes, including the Cheyenne and Apache, reportedly would not eat the fowl. Many tribes used turkey feathers to make robes, blankets and fletching for hunting arrows. Native American hunters sometimes tipped their arrows with the sharp spurs of old gobblers. All sorts of tools were carved out of turkey bones. Indians learned to yelp through the small wing bones of turkeys to lure other birds into bow range.

Indians often fashioned ceremonial headdresses of turkey feathers. Some tribes revered beards, spurs and feathers as religious and spiritual symbols.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found wild turkeys inhabiting parts of what are now 39 states. Early settlers wrote of flocks of hundreds or thousands of birds. Unlike today’s wild turkeys, those early birds were apparently unwary and easy to approach. The settlers were struck by the “turkey cock’s” splendid gobbling and strutting during the spring courtship period.

Turkeys were a major food source for settlers who spread out across the vast, wild country. As pioneers pushed west and cut and cleared virgin forests, the turkey’s habitat changed and disappeared. In the late 1700s the birds were exposed to heavy market hunting (some historical reports mention that hens sold for 6 cents apiece while big gobblers brought a quarter at game markets). All of the above spelled doom for turkeys. By the mid-1800s the big bird had been eliminated from nearly half of its original range.

In the early 1900s, only around 30,000 turkeys remained. But around 1920, things began to change for the better. Millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Also, some farsighted leaders began enacting more and more conservation laws, like the Federal Aid in Restoration Act. The groundwork was lain for the remarkable comeback of the American turkey.

During the last 60 years, state and federal wildlife agencies, which are funded largely by hunters’ dollars, have spent megabucks on habitat-improvement and turkey trap-and-transplant projects. Over the past two decades the National Wild Turkey Federation has chipped in more than $82 million on similar efforts. The result? The wild turkey has not been restored throughout its original range, but it has also been introduced into many other regions. Today, some 4.5 million big birds roam 49 states (all except Alaska). Even though loss of habitat and other environmental factors remain causes for concern, turkey populations should stay healthy and growing into the future.


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