A flock of wild turkeys at the edge of a cornfield, as in my illustration, is a bird watcher’s sight to behold. It becomes even more exciting when the turkeys cross the road into our own backyards, like when an onerous male recently caused quite a stir in the center of Mattapoisett. The macho behavior of a tom can be quite impressive when gobbling for attention while raising and spreading out a fan shape tail, and blowing up to strut around, humming, with wings antagonistically drooped and splayed out for competitive combat.
The frequency of sightings in urban areas is still rising after their numbers were so seriously depleted and overhunted at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, turkeys were classified as big game by eminent wildlife writer and illustrator Ernest Thompson Seton in his masterwork seven-volume reference encyclopedia entitled Big Game Animals of North America. What we are seeing today is the result of many years of conservation. State stocking programs made the wild turkey population come alive like the proverbial Phoenix rising up out of the ashes after cutting his forest habitat for agricultural pasture and building lots.
The natural history of the wild turkey in this neck of the woods is somewhat sketchy as to native origin, but it seems to surface at the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621, not far away as the crow flies but distantly obscured in accounts going back 400 years in time. The annual occasion is not well documented when some 90 Wampanoags contributed five deer to an autumn feast along with a corn and clam dish called Nasaump, and a pumpkin and squash succotash called Pompion. Thus, they had themselves already similarly celebrated an annual autumn bountiful harvest, but probably earlier in the season after the first frosts of Indian Summer for their green corn ceremony. If there is no mention of turkeys at that gathering, it is still written that colonists thereafter learned to domesticate them by placing their eggs in the nest of domestic fowl.
Benjamin Franklin later failed to get Congress to adopt this clean living avian as the national bird, because the turkey loses its head and flies in all scatterbrained directions when threatened with danger. This tendency was considered a character flaw.
Nevertheless, over time it enjoys a national avian status symbol as illustrated in Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving portrayal in his classic four freedom collection, particularly ‘Freedom from Want.’ There, a golden brown roast turkey fresh out of the oven is being placed on the table by an apron-clad grandmotherly matriarch in front of a dignified tie-and-jacket patriarchal head of the table appreciated by the smiles of more than one generation.
When we bow our heads this month before carving this emblem of Thanksgiving, let us remember and esteem the spirit of the first Americans’ harvest festival of thanks for the bountiful blessing of Mother Earth in times of need. In modern times, it also might be appropriate to include Rockwell’s other three freedoms – speech, religion, and fear.
Amen, and please pass the gravy and cranberry sauce to enjoy what we are about to receive.
By George B. Emmons