For most of us, Christmas means a family gathering with a plump baked turkey as a centerpiece.
Oh boy, how we love our holiday turkey. Each year around 300 million turkeys are eaten in the U. S. A Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey has been an American tradition since 1621.
A truly American bird, they must have been a welcome relief for the poor Europeans who were the first to arrive. Back home those folks had been eating all manner of tasteless wading birds to supplement their diets. In the new world, turkeys were plentiful.
Make no mistake, though, wild turkeys bore little resemblance to the plump, big breasted birds we now buy at the market. Lean and a bit stringy, the wild birds were exceptionally fast on the ground with a running speed of around 30 miles per hour and up to 55 on the wing.
The modern farm-raised turkey has been cross-bred and pumped full of hormones and other chemicals until they are now unable to fly at all.
In Central Florida, we have always had a healthy population of wild turkeys. If you have ever driven out around the intersection of West International Speedway and LPGA boulevards in Daytona Beach at dusk or dawn, you have probably seen them eating on the shoulder of the road. Up near where I live, there is a fat hen that likes to patrol the shoulder of John Anderson each morning before sunrise. Several times while on my way to fish I have had to dodge her.
You can tell the male gobblers from the females by the large red fleshy top knot or by the beard on their chest. The tom’s are also larger and more colorful and they are the ones with the spreading tail feathers that we see in the photos.
Years ago, when I was teaching my daughter Shayla how to drive, we would go up to Palm Coast where there were miles of paved streets and few homes. On one street, the lone house had an old truck parked in the driveway and, as we passed, two hounds would run out from under the truck to give chase to our car. Along with the dogs was a wild tom turkey that would trot right along with them. Each time we passed, the two dogs and the turkey would chase our car. We loved it!
Now you may have wondered how the great American bird came to be named for a foreign country? No one knows for sure, but, back in 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain gave an order that each ship that returned from the new world would have to bring back five hens and five male turkeys for breeding purposes. The birds began to flourish and soon caught the eye of traders from Istanbul. The Turkey merchants began to pedal them all across Europe and the name stuck.
Back in America, the settlers likened them to pheasants or peacocks, but no name was as successful as “turkey.”
Ben Franklin was a big supporter of the turkey, stating (rightfully so)) they were truly American and should be the national bird instead of the bald eagle, which is found all around the globe. Ben lost.
Through the years the reputation of the turkey has suffered somewhat. Mainly because of their supposed stupidity. They say that if left outside in the rain, they will stare up at it until their nostrils fill with water and they will drown. Not too bright. No matter, we love them.
When my sister and I were both pre-teens, our dad made the mistake of bringing home Christmas dinner on the hoof. He tied the big bird to the fence in the back yard where my sister and I could feed it and play with it. Sure enough, when Christmas came, we had ham and Gobbly ate his holiday meal along with the family. Oh well, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy bird day!
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, “The World’s Greatest Beach” and “I Swear the Snook Drowned.” Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.