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.

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