Michael McCarthy: Turkeys as you've never seen them

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The Independent Online

I had never conceived an interest in turkeys as birds, despite the fact that the original species, the wild turkey, is one the most notable members of the New World avifauna, and indeed was the very first plate in John James Audubon's legendary Birds of America. Why? Dunno really. Then I went to Mexico.

The Yucatá* is a special place, a riverless limestone world with a dozen or so bird species found nowhere else, and one of them is a turkey; but not the traditional wild turkey. I came across it at the edge of a lake when the Maya guides got excited and started shouting and looking at something just inside the lake shore forest. I peered through the branches and saw a rainbow, or that's what it seems like in memory: a glowing mixture of iridescent bronze, and green, and blue, with a lustrously brilliant blue head and neck: an ocellated turkey, the second of the world's two turkey species.

It was one of those moments when the plates of your perception suddenly shift: here was the turkey as object of aesthetic admiration, not as object of appetite. And since then, I have broadened my ornithological interest to its fellow species in North America, the bird which went on to the first Thanksgiving dinner table: a creature with such a resonance in the American imagination that it was Benjamin Franklin's candidate for the US national bird, in place of the bald eagle.

I asked Mark Cocker, the naturalist and writer who is the author of the encyclopaedic Birds Britannica, about turkeys as birds, and he responded with a flood of folklore, from where the name turkey came from, to what it meant to the Aztecs. For Mark is now engaged in producing Birds and People, a close look at human relations with all the birds in the world; you'll be able to enjoy his lengthy turkey disquisition on publication, and you won't be disappointed.

In the meantime, take it from me that there is more to turkeys than the dinner table would suggest to us (not that I have anything but approval for Christmas dinner); they can reach unexpected parts of the imagination, just as in the Yucatá* with me, when I suddenly realised that moist breast meat, crisp skin and stuffing were not the whole story.