By David Cronenwett
As we slide through the increasingly short days of November, thoughts understandably turn to turkeys. The Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), is not a native species to Montana, but a successfully introduced addition to our game birds. Another species more directly associated to a specific holiday would difficult to find. Turkeys are large and unmistakable; a big male (tom) can weigh nearly twenty-three pounds. The sexes exhibit pronounced differences in plumage. Toms have striking feather highlights of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence where female markings are more subtle and muted. During mating season, male turkeys strut about, fan their showy tail feathers and puff themselves up substantially to attract females. Their brilliant red-blue-white head and neck coloration also serves them during mating displays.
The Wild Turkey is native to southwest, eastern and southeast regions of the US, generally preferring open woodland habitats. These omnivorous birds are strong fliers, despite their ground foraging nature and heavy bodies. People traveling in backcountry areas with wild turkey populations may be terrified by flushing a group of turkeys…a far more startling event than stumbling across a covey of grouse. This large, ungainly bird was (and remains) an important source of food for native peoples in many areas of the country. As the Euro-American presence expanded across the continent, turkey populations plummeted in its wake. Following the “wildlife enlightenment” of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the species was reestablished across much of its native range and well into new habitats. Today, the bird exists in every state except Alaska and has many advocates. Their total population is estimated at roughly seven million individuals and nationally, they are the second most hunted game animal after whitetail deer.
Thanksgiving feasts would be unthinkable to many people without a turkey on the table. The association of wild and domestic turkeys with this holiday is unique but there is no substantive historical account of why this might be. Literature describing the feast at Plymouth in 1621- an event which helped establish the modern holiday- mentions several types of wild game being consumed, including venison and turkeys. We may never know why the turkey is so powerfully connected to Thanksgiving in America, but beyond the big feast, the season upon us asks for a reflection of gratitude in our lives; something as modern people we probably could stand to do more often.
The importance and prevalence of giving thanks for what we have was much more pronounced in the past; gratitude was viewed in hunting-animist cultures as an essential part of reciprocity, an ordering principal in nature. Common suffering was also a motivator for gratitude. From the Pleistocene to the late frontier era, the very real possibility of death or dismemberment from a multitude of causes probably kept the concept of thankfulness at the fore for many peoples. Hardship, as we know, inspires gratitude and compassion like nothing else. Today however, we require frequent reminders of what we have that makes life both possible and worth living.
For those of us in Montana, this is a good time to recognize and express gratitude for the many natural and cultural riches that surround us. A powerful way to do this is to travel outside the state, always a vivid reminder of what has been lost elsewhere. The rich mosaic of wild and rural habitats that support our diverse wildlife populations in Montana, everything from Boreal Chorus Frogs, to Grizzly Bears to Wild Turkeys, is the envy of the world. Also important to remember is that this hasn’t happened by accident; it has taken a great deal of human thought and energy to conserve, restore and steward Montana’s natural resources over time and will take more work and diligence to do so in the future. In this season of gratitude, let’s remember to give some thanks for this magnificent and wild place, the blessing, that is our home.