At last - good news for turkeys

Countdown to Christmas: wild American giants are on the way back from the brink of extinction

THIS WEEK, of all weeks, there's good news for turkeys. The fattened gobblers heading for their rendezvous with cranberry sauce may be comforted to know that their wild relatives have clawed their way back from the edge of extinction.

Not long ago the wild turkey - the "grandest and most magnificent bird in North America" in David Attenborough's view - seemed, how shall we put it, stuffed. Its numbers had dropped to about 30,000 and it had vanished from more than half of the American states it once roamed.

But now, a new survey by the the US National Wild Turkey Foundation has estimated there are about five million of them - probably more than there were when the Pilgrim Fathers landed and made them their dinner on the first Thanksgiving.

By the start of the US Civil War the tasty, 4ft-long bird - which flies with difficulty, but can outsprint a racehorse - had already vanished from New England, slaughtered for food and the magnificent tail feathers that garnished women's hats. It also lost out as the West was won and its habitats were cleared for towns and farmland.

At first, conservationists tried to reverse the decline by releasing barnyard turkeys into the wild. But they were soon polished off by foxes and other predators - for whom Christmas had indeed come early - and by winter weather.

"Only wild turkeys have the right stuff for winter," noted the naturalists Kim and George Harrison. "Their strong legs with large feet and long toes make superb rakes for scratching up deep snow and dead leaves in search of the acorns, nuts, seeds and fruits they need."

Another US naturalist, Theodore Xenophon Barber adds: "Our long, enslaved domesticated turkeys do not act at all like natural birds. They are virtually desexualised."

Two other writers, Jim Mason and Peter Singer, are even less complimentary about the birds heading for our tables. "The production of cheap meat has made monsters of the butterball turkeys, which grow so chunky that they cannot carry out sexual intercourse."

Their wild relatives have no such inhibition. The male's come-hither call to his harem can be heard a mile away in spring and the birds' elaborate mating ritual has inspired an American square dance called "turkey in the straw".

The wild bird has staged a phenomenal comeback since the 1970s, when conservationists began trapping whole flocks from their remaining strongholds and moving them to areas where they had become extinct. In 1975, for example, 22 birds were released in north-western Connecticut; there are now 35,000 of them there. This year, say naturalists, was a particularly good year, with one of the driest springs in history, ideal for their nesting and breeding.

It all adds up to a remarkable revival after a devastating rebuff, for the turkey nearly ended up as the symbol of the US. At independence, Benjamin Franklin proposed it as the national bird, but it lost to the bald eagle by a single vote in Congress. But for that vote, we would have had the delicious prospect of successive presidents sitting - all too appropriately in some cases - under the sign of the turkey in the Oval Office.

Franklin was outraged at the result. "I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country," he wrote to his daughter. "He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him yourself perched on some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk, waiting to steal that bird's food."

On second thoughts, perhaps the bald eagle was the most appropriate symbol for some presidents after all.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

Year 6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 6 Teachers urgently needed for su...

English Secondary Teacher

£110 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: English Teacher needed for ...

Year 3/4 Teacher - Immediate Start

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 3/4 Teacher Needed in Flintshire ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits