To the very first European pioneers spreading across the vastness of the eastern half of what is now the United States, these huge and distinctive birds, which feed on the ground by day and roost out of harm's way in trees at night, must have seemed heaven-sent to fill hungry stomachs. With adult hens weighing in at 10-12lb and the males - known as "gobblers" from their loud, gobbling call - reaching double that, wild turkeys soon became a more common sight on a scrub-top table than they did around the edges of the forests where they had once been so abundant.
According to Michael Seamster, of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, no other bird can compare with the wild turkey in its importance to the ear1y settlers. Large, colourful, ground-living birds, hungry settlers, and the unchallenged right to bear arms are a heady combination. What is amazing is that the species survived at all.
Wild turkeys are found only on the North American continent. It is calculated that two centuries ago there were about 10 million of them, concentrated in what is now the eastern US, south-east Canada, extensive tracts of the Midwest, some of the southern states and Central America.
By 1950 only about 300,000 survived, a decline attributed not solely to hunters' guns but also to habitat destruction and, maybe, to diseases introduced by domestic poultry.
But, because some of these North American populations had been physically isolated from each other - probably for millennia - no fewer than seven different varieties have been recognised. They vary only slightly in appearance and size, although the ocellated turkey of Central America is an altogether diminutive version. Weighing in at no more than 8lb, it is good enough for a meal or two but not hefty enough for a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. All the same, this dwarf of the wild turkey clan has suffered equally from the gun and the woodsman's axe.
While domestic turkeys - originally bred from the large, eastern States variety of the wild turkey - are either white, reddish or brown in colour, the wild turkey is a much more attractive bird. The males can be nearly 4ft long, with a chestnut-brown plumage that is beautifully iridescent, giving it a green, blue and dark red sheen in different light. Hens are smaller and lighter brown and both sexes have featherless heads - not their most stunning characteristic, but a colourful blue and red.
If the phrase "strutting his stuff" has a single origin, the male turkey on sexually charged parade simply must be it. Fanning his huge tail into an ornate, upright semicircle, the gobbler struts around with his wings dragging on the ground. His body is inflated and feathers are a-quiver; his head is drawn in tight against his distended chest, and changes colour between blue, red and white. And, as if this sexually vibrant display isn't already over the top, the bird produces a series of puffing calls and the famous "gobbling" sound, which is intended to attract distant hens, but once equally attracted springtime guns. So, the next time you see some equally sexually charged lads strutting their stuff in designer apparel and eyeing up the local girls, try telling them - if you dare - that they can't strut half as well as a turkey cock.
Though large and generally more willing to run to escape danger, wild turkeys have powerful wings that can carry them along at more than 50mph. Adaptable birds, they eat a wide variety of food. Acorns are a favourite when they are available, but buds, fruits, grasses, waste grain, insects and small mammals can all be on the menu. In captivity their lifespan can be as much as 12 years, but wild birds average just two years, with a turkey that reaches five years being a very sturdy survivor.
Turkeys lay a large number of eggs - up to 15 - a feature they have in common with most ground-living birds, which suffer easily from predators. Quite often, two or more hens lay their eggs in a single "nest" - basically a scrape in the earth - and, after hatching, tend the insect-eating chicks together. The gobblers, having long finished their strutting, have nothing to do with family life. After three weeks, the young can fly up into trees for a safer night although, by this time, perhaps half of them will have died, victims of either inclement weather or predators.
Since the Fifties and Sixties, the wild turkey's fortunes have changed. Controls on hunting, replanting of some previously felled forests and improved management of others, coupled with a greater respect for what is by far the largest ground-living bird on the North American continent, have all contributed to boosting the total population to 4 million birds.
In Ontario, for example, wild turkeys were reintroduced in the mid Eighties from sturdy populations in Missouri. "It's been tremendously successful; we now have about 5,000 pairs and the population is continuing to expand both in numbers and in its distribution," comments Jon McCracken, of Bird Studies Canada. "We have a controlled and very limited sprint hunt which is very popular, but there are absolutely no indications that it's having any impact on the population."
By 1970, North Carolina had around 2,000 wild turkeys left. By introducing more than a thousand more birds from healthy populations in other parts of the United States between then and 1988, numbers now exceed 20,000 and the range of the wild turkey has been extended from 5,000 square miles to around three times that.
"We reckon that we have more than 3,000 more square miles of suitable habitat, so restoration will remain the priority for many years yet," says Michael Seamster. But the wild turkey is not out of the woods quite yet. In North Carolina, for instance, there are concerns that urban and industrial development and habitat clearance could limit its recovery in parts of the state, while continued vigilance is necessary to make sure that hunting does not over-exploit vulnerable populations. Thankfully, though, most hunters take a responsible attitude to this fine bird which, if Benjamin Franklin had had his way, would have become the emblem of the United States, rather than the bald eagle.
So, this Christmas, as you gobble down lashings of lunch-time turkey, spare a moment's thought for those other gobblers which, at the very same time in the American Midwest, will be making dawn flights from their tree roosts on to the snow-covered ground to search out their first meal of the day.