Readers might have been surprised to learn last week that after hovering near extinction, 4 million wild turkeys now roam the lower 48 states. That’s nothing, however. By the time Thursdays’ plates are washed, Americans will have eaten 46,000,000 domesticated turkeys. There are many reasons for our food choices. Economics. Availability. Health. Culture. Personal taste. Ethics. Those factors lead to lots of labels. Omnivore. Carnivore. Vegetarian. Pescatarian (vegetarian diet plus fish and seafood). Vegan. Fruitarian (eating only what can be taken from a plant without killing or harming that plant; extreme fruitarians only eat what naturally falls from a plant.). But whether you’re deep-frying a bird Thursday or dining on the soy substitute tofu-rkey, let’s pause to consider those birds as animals (not just main courses) ahead of the holiday. To be clear, this is not an argument for a vegetarian diet. Rather, this is me just asking us to be mindful, if even briefly, of who we are eating. 46 million turkeys this one day is, after all, a whole lot of birds.
Big Fowl might want us to think them slow, both mentally and physically, but a lot of what we “know” about turkeys is wrong. For example, not only can they fly but they reach speeds of 60 miles per hour. Rather than the poster-bird for awkward, they can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour, and climb high up into trees for predator-safe sleeping. Turkeys do not drown looking up with curiosity when it rains. (Think about it. With eyes on both sides rather than in front, looking up would actually mean looking out.) And if memory is one example of intelligence, a wild turkey can visualize and precisely navigate a mental map of the 1,000 or more acres of home territory, recalling specific locations even after years of absence.
Like all animals, turkeys evolved to fill a specific environmental niche and their intelligence, as well as everything else about them, is perfect for that job. Oh, and the tale that Ben Franklin proposed turkey as our national symbol is apparent poppycock although he did prefer the choice over that of the bald eagle, noting the eagle as an essentially lazy animal while the turkey a bird of true courage.