It’s November. Halloween is in the rear view mirror, and Christmas is on the horizon, but first we have Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise.” In 1942, the federal Thanksgiving holiday was moved to the fourth Thursday in November, where it has remained.
Often referred to as “Turkey Day,” Thanksgiving has become synonymous with the crafty bird. A survey by the National Turkey Federation revealed that 88% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-six million turkeys are eaten on Thanksgiving, 22 million on Christmas, and 19 million on Easter. Domesticated turkeys come from wild turkeys, a species that is native only to the Americas. According to Cornell University’s All About Birds, one theory is that the turkey got its English name when Spanish traders brought some domesticated birds back from Mexico to Europe, passing through Turkey. Another theory is that early settlers believed the bird resembled a type of guinea fowl called a turkey that was imported into Europe from Madagascar, although the wild turkey is larger and not related. In either event, when turkeys were introduced to Europe in the 1500s, they were considered a succulent sensation, especially in comparison to the other fowl gracing European tables at the time, which included storks and herons.
While turkeys were plentiful when Europeans arrived in America, the wild turkey was nearly extinct at the turn of the 20th century. In Illinois, the wild turkey was completely extirpated in the early 1900s. The birds were successfully reintroduced in Illinois in the 1950s when turkeys from the Ozarks were trapped and transplanted. Currently, wild turkeys can be found in every county in Illinois, with an estimated population of 150,000 birds across the state.
By the 1970s, wild turkey populations had increased so much that hunting seasons were reintroduced after an absence beginning in 1903. The wild turkey has become a wildly popular animal to hunt. One Sangamon County resident who enjoys turkey hunting is Greg Stumpf. Greg says that while he also hunts deer he prefers turkey hunting because a turkey hunter can totally interact with the bird — calling to them, using decoys, and working to outsmart the turkeys — and of course he likes to eat turkey. In Illinois, turkeys are usually hunted in the spring (April and May), but there is also a fall turkey season. Hunters enjoy using archery gear to hunt turkeys in the fall.
The wild turkey, while a conservation success story, has seen its numbers across the state and country dip over the last few years. Wildlife biologists are researching the issue to try to determine what is causing the decline. Several factors could be at play, including weather, habitat loss, and predators. But it’s not all doom and gloom as over 6 million wild turkeys still dot the landscape across the country.
Fun turkey facts:
Wild turkeys can fly and they sleep in trees. Every night they fly up into a tree and perch on a limb. The weight of their body as they squat down on the limb wraps their toes around the limb to hold them onto the limb while they sleep.
Male adult turkeys are called Toms.
Male juvenile turkeys are called Jakes.
Female adult turkeys are called Hens.
Female juvenile turkeys are called Jennies.
Wild turkeys are omnivorous and will eat grain, grass, nuts, berries, insects, grubs and even small reptiles.
Wild turkeys have six distinct subspecies: Eastern (common in Illinois), Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Osceola, Gould’s and Ocellated.
The only state in the U.S. without a turkey population is Alaska.