Turkey! Throughout the Middle East, the meleagris galopavo species is called "the Ethiopian chicken". The Spanish and French call it, fairly accurately, "the Indies bird." Most of the rest of the world, including Turkey's more than 55 million inhabitants call it "the American bird". We persist in calling this member of the Phasianidae (pheasant) family the "Turkey".

Actually, Americans call the bird a turkey only because our British cousins did so before us, and they were confusing it with the much smaller Guinea fowl, which they thought came from Turkey. Nobody knows where the Guinea fowl really came from, but it's fairly certain that it didnít come from Turkey. It doesnít appear to have come from Guinea, either -- old or New. Such confusion!

The wild turkey is native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States. There are still some wild turkeys in the southeastern United States, and they are numerous on some of the offshore islands, mainly because hunting is not allowed there. (There is some poaching in the islands, however -- I did some myself in my younger days.) In most of their natural range, which once covered most of North and Central America, wild turkeys have been hunted out.

The wild bird has brown feathers with buff-colored feathers on the tips of the wing and on the tail. The male is called a Tom or Stag, and, as with most birds, it is bigger than the female (up to twice the weight at any given age) and has brighter and more colorful plumage. The female is called a hen and is generally much smaller and drab. The Tom turkey has a long wattle (a fleshy, wrinkley, brightly colored, inflatable fold of skin) at the base of its bill and down its neck, as well as a prominent tuft of bristles resembling a beard projecting downward from its chest. Wild hen turkeys just look like big brown scrawny chickens. Both sexes are gaunt, but they are tasty in a gamey sort of way, because they eat more meat than their domesticated relatives do -- yes, wild turkeys are omnivorous. Their taste varies depending on what they have in their own diet. The ones that eat a lot of wild onions and garlic are best. Island birds sometimes have the strongest taste, because they scavenge long-dead fish on the shoreline.

Turkeys appear to have evolved about 36 million years ago, during the Oligocene epoch of the Tertiary Period in the Cenozoic Era. More than 700 fossil specimens have been recovered from the California La Brea tar pit site alone. There is archeological evidence that turkeys were penned in the south-western part of North America as early as 2000 years ago and that they were totally domesticated in Mexico by 1000 years ago. Mexican domestic breeds were brought into Europe early in the 16th century -- almost one hundred years before the Pilgrims arrived in New England. The domestic birds came back to North America in the mid-1700's to meet a demand for turkey meat: wild turkeys were already disappearing on the North American east coast in the face of hunting and human pressure on their habitat. Since that time, turkeys have been extensively raised in North America because of the excellent quality of their meat and eggs. The common breeds of turkey in the United States are the White Broad-Breasted (aka, White Holland), Bronze, Narragansett, and Bourbon Red. Domestic turkeys are also omnivores (even cannibals) and won't pass up a bit of carrion, but farm bred turkeys are fed mostly on grain and plant derivatives to give them a more congenial taste (read that as "bland").

Almost all of the birds roasted whole and eaten during the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday season are the White Broad-Breasted types and most are also hens, killed young at 25 pounds or less. A 25 pound hen would be about 28 weeks old. Much bigger birds, usually Toms, at 50 to 60 pounds and a few weeks older, find their way into restaurant and hotel kitchens. The big Toms are older, tougher, less tasty, and, most importantly from the proprietors' viewpoint, cheaper. (So now you no longer have to wonder why Mom's was so much better than what you get in a restaurant.)

Two hundred and sixty-seven million turkeys will be slaughtered in the US by the end of 2001. That's actually a decline from the peak year of 1996 when over 303 million turkeys galloped down US gullets. But it's still more than one whole turkey for each American man, woman, and child. In 2000, the US exported 458 million pounds of whole and cut-up turkeys, worth about 233 million dollars, mostly to Russia and Pacific rim countries, out of a total production of almost 7 billion (yes, billion) pounds of turkey.

Until holiday time, most birds are made into processed products such as lunchmeat and turkey ham. About a fourth of US turkeys are sold whole and eaten in November and December. So in October, production shifts to whole birds and processing plants operate longer hours to meet the holiday demand.

North Carolina is expected to sell 46 million or so turkeys in 2001 (who counts 'em?), more than any other state. Minnesota is expected to be second at almost 44 million. The other states in the top ten are Arkansas, Virginia, Missouri, California, Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Iowa. Although Georgia doesn't make the top ten, it still boasts the world's largest turkey farm, just a little bit north of Brunswick, on the Atlantic coast between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Florida. The biggest processor is the "Jenny-O Turkey Store" with 1,248 million pounds in 2000. "Butterball" is a distant second at 755 million pounds -- still a lot of turkey. It's a good thing all those folks are raising and processing so many turkeys: Americans eat a lot of turkey meat. In 2000, Americans each ate 17.9 pounds of turkey -- up from only 8.7 pounds each in 1974. Canadians eat 15.5 pounds. The French are next (14.5 pounds), followed by Italians (12.3), Germans (11), and then by UK residents (9.2) -- with only a bit more appetite the UK could get up to ten pounds! But wait! Even at 17.9 pounds, Americans aren't the most voracious turkey consumers: Israelis, in a country that doesn't raise much red meat, each eat more than 22 pounds per year.

Virginians claim to have celebrated the first Thanksgiving on Dec. 4, 1619, at Berkeley Plantation, just southwest of Richmond on the James River. They were re-creating a traditional British country Harvest Festival, which in Britain, according to contemporary accounts, often featured roast turkey. However, most Americans associate Thanksgiving and turkey dinner with the Pilgrims, who ate their own famous harvest meal with the Indians in 1620. Though most authorities concede that there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim governor, William Bradford, did mention wild turkeys in a book that he wrote when he returned to London. In a letter sent to England, another Pilgrim described how the governor sent "four men out fowling", and said that they had returned with turkeys, ducks and geese. Thanksgiving dinner or not, the Pilgrims would already have been familiar with turkey meat: it was already quite popular in Europe before they left there.

Every year, the National Turkey Foundation, a growers association, brings a big Tom, 60 pounds or more, to the White House and presents it to the President. In a tradition started in by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, the bird is granted a Presidential pardon and sent back to the farm. The bird is traditionally named Harry. Nobody says much about what happens to "Harry" after he gets back to the farm. "Harry" is not really the biggest turkey of the year, however -- just a large size bird with good "camera appeal". The largest recorded turkey was actually a huge male bird that weighed 86 pounds when plucked, cleaned, and ready for the oven. It was called "Tyson" (presumably after the muscular prizefighter) and raised in the UK by Leacroft Turkeys Limited. Tyson won the London heaviest turkey competition in 1989 and then was sold in a charity auction for $7,428. There's no word on his whereabouts today.

Benjamin Franklin famously lobbied to have the turkey named as the American national bird instead of the Bald Eagle. He said: "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 very often lousy. The Turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America"

Links for turkeys:

Turkey Hall of Fame prize winning recipes: http://www.turkeytuesdays.ca/nw/thf/t_hall_of%20fame.htm

Other ways to use a turkey, etc.: http://www.laffnow.com/?category=turkeyindex

Ode to a Turkey: http://www.jokes-funnies.com/holidayjokes/odetoturkey.shtml

Amazing Turkey mazes:

Turkey facts and crafts: http://familycrafts.about.com/parenting/familycrafts/library/weekly/aa101600a.htm

US National Turkey Federation turkey trivia: http://www.turkeyfed.org/consumer/history/history.html

British turkey info: http://www.britishturkey.co.uk/turkeyTrivia/index.html

I've always warned you there might be a quiz at the end of one of these articles: http://www.norbest.com/a_fun_games_01.cfm

P.S.: Until a few years ago, most paleontologists agreed that dinosaurs had disappeared 65 million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic (=middle animal) period, which preceded the Cenozoic. Now they talk about the extinction of "non-avian" dinosaurs at that time: current theory is that birds are a branch of the dinosaur family. So on Thanksgiving Day you can truthfully answer "dinosaur" when the kids ask: "What's for dinner?" (See http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/avians.html for details of how birds, including turkeys, became coelurosaurs.)

Go to http://www.mmdtkw.org/Veneto2001.html for other articles.