Barbara MacKellar's Published Prose

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From ancient Greece to modern times, Thanksgiving is delicious: Wild turkeys, however, are downright mean

wild turkey walking

Wild turkey walking in grasslands

The origins of Thanksgiving can be traced back to ancient autumn full moon festivals. In ancient Greece, the women celebrated the festival of Thesmophoria in honour of the goddess Demeter for the gift of grain. The Romans made offerings at wells and fountains to the Camanae, oracular water nymphs. The Chinese opened the temple of the God of Wealth. The Jewish people still celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot. And native North Americans celebrate three significant autumn moon festivals: the Green Corn Festival, the Harvest Moon and the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon.

While local customs and seasons may have varied, festivals of thanks typically featured an abundance of food, a giving of thanks and a break from work (whether it be hunting, shepherding or harvesting). The ancient Celts celebrated summer’s end with the feast of Samhain (known today as Halloween), which featured roast boar from the hunt, roast beef from the herds, nuts from the forest and breads made from harvest grains. The Norse and Anglo-Saxons also celebrated the end of summer on the first full moon of their lunar calendar with harvest bounty, mead, ale and sacrificial beef.

Our European ancestors also held thanksgiving festivals, which they celebrated with a grand feast prepared from wild game, domestic animals and food crops, or whatever was on hand at the time. As they emigrated to the New World, they brought these customs with them. Martin Frobisher’s famous thanksgiving feast, held on Baffin Island (today’s Nunavut) in July, 1578 for safe sailing over storm-tossed seas, consisted of salt beef, biscuits and peas scrounged from the ship’s larder. Frobisher’s offering was a paltry pantry compared to the grand feast of thanks held by Samuel de Champlain and his French settlers in Ile Saint Croix in 1604 to celebrate their safe passage to the New World. Neither did it compare to the early harvest thanksgiving festival held by the Pilgrims in Plymouth in August, 1621. Coincidentally, both were communal feasts featuring wild game, fresh fish and harvest produce shared by the settlers with their native North American neighbours.

The life of a pioneer was not easy. Many died of starvation trying to scratch a living out of New World soil. After a bleak winter on Ile Saint Croix, the French settlers were moved to Port Royal, where Champlain established L’Ordre de Bon Temps, a social gathering that guaranteed a “laden banquet table” provided by a designated Steward responsible for ensuring the success of the feast. The popularity of the order grew and the rivalry among the hunters was so high they started foraging days earlier to provide a menu of “ducks, bustards, grey and white geese, partridges, larks … moose, caribou, beaver, otter, bear, rabbits, wildcats … sturgeon,” which was served “together with fruits, vegetables, fresh bread, pastries and wine.”

While Champlain made no mention of turkeys being on the menu, he wrote about a marvelous bird described to him by the natives of Massachusetts, which he rightly guessed was the wild turkey that inhabited the eastern half of North America. Champlain’s wild turkey should not to be confused with the tamed Mexican turkey the Spaniards introduced to Europe in 1519 and navigator William Strickland brought back to England, or with its descendant, the large domestic turkey that graces the family Thanksgiving table today. “They are as large as a bustard, which is a kind of goose, having the neck longer and twice as large as those with us,” Champlain wrote in his Voyages. “All these indications led us to conclude that they were turkeys.”

According to hunters, chefs and gourmands, while the wild turkeys our pioneer ancestors served on special occasions may not have been nearly as fat and juicy as the turkeys we buy from our local farmers, butchers and grocers, they were far tastier. Over the years, the wild turkey became the preferred fowl for special occasions, and had Benjamin Franklin not lost his case against the Bald Eagle, it might have become the national bird of the United States.

It may come as a surprise to those who have seen the flocks of long-necked wild turkeys strutting along the steep forested roads and through the campsites of Cypress Hills Park as if they own the place that these once-abundant birds were almost annihilated in the early 1900s by unregulated hunting, logging and farming. They may be smaller and scrawnier than today’s turkeys, but they’re hardy and adaptable … and they can fly … really really fast. Wild turkeys can fly as fast as 55 mph for short distances. They’re not so bad at running, either, managing speeds of 15-30 mph.

They’re also more aggressive than their tamed cousins.

“The Jolly Life” exhibit at the North Battleford Western Development Museum, which features the life of an early farmstead wife, has on display one of the last seven wild turkeys in Saskatchewan bred in St. Gregor in 1929. “Newcomers to the province hunted wild turkey for food,” the exhibit notes explain, “and cleared away the birds’ bush habitat for farm land.”

By the early 1900s, wild turkeys were already a rare breed in Saskatchewan and everywhere else in North America. And although they could fly fast, they couldn’t fly far. They also had poor depth perception and sense of smell and were not the brightest birds on the block, being easily trapped by the settlers and natives who regarded them as a primary food source. As the pioneers cut down virgin forests in their push west, they also cleared away the natural habitat of wild turkeys. In the 1920s, the birds had dwindled to around 30,000, and were devastated even further in the prairies by the drought of the 1930s. By the 1940s, they were nearly extirpated from Canada and were barely hanging on in remote areas of the United States.

With the regeneration of new woodlands, the introduction of new wildlife restoration laws and the efforts of game officials to encourage the protection and breeding of the surviving wild turkeys, their numbers slowly began to increase. At first, however, the restoration of the wild population was hit and miss. Techniques like game-farm and pen-raised turkeys failed because the hens were improperly imprinted and had no experience surviving in the wild. With the advance of trapping techniques and the development of a rapidly propelled cannon net, wild turkey numbers increased. Thousands of the birds were captured or moved with drop nets and immobilizing drugs.

The reintroduction of wild turkeys to North America is one of the great North American conservation success stories, particularly the eastern variety. Today more than 7 million wild turkeys are roaming forested areas of Canada, the United States and Mexico. Hunters are literally flocking to Ontario, where a 2007 survey reported between 80,000 and 100,000 wild turkeys living in the province. Alberta and British Columbia are also popular places to go wild turkey hunting. Smaller populations live in southwestern Alberta and southeastern Saskatchewan, where the gregarious gobblers can be seen puffing up their breast feathers and spreading and shaking their magnificent tail feathers to attract the admiration of the hens.

In some areas, though, flocks of wild turkeys have been spreading into urban areas and becoming a nuisance. They’ve been digging up lawns and gardens, perching on cars and terrorizing pedestrians and motorists. John Brassard, a Barrie, Ontario city councillor, was attacked by a couple of the large birds while driving home. When he stopped and honked his horn, “they started pecking at the grill,” said Brassard. Similarly, garden bloggers report wanton raids on their urban crops. Some folks have taken revenge by inviting the feathered pests to Thanksgiving dinner as the main course and in the process have discovered the culinary delight of tender, juicy roasted wild turkey breast served with rich, dark pan gravy.

There’s no need to take such drastic measures in southwest Saskatchewan, where the wild turkeys graciously confine themselves to the Cypress Hills and an area just past the bridge along the narrow winding road from Maple Creek. With Thanksgiving right round the corner, the local butchers, farmers markets and supermarkets are well stocked with big, fat, blasé traditional domestic turkeys. Those who are hankering to try something new and different, however, can put away the rifles, face paint and gobble calls and order a wild turkey online. Our pioneering forebears undoubtedly would have done the same if they’d had the internet back in their day.


The Gull Lake Advance, Oct. 2, 2012

Won Best Research Story award in the 2013 SWNA (Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association) Better Newspapers Competition, sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan.

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Written by barbaramackellar

February 23, 2013 at 6:59 am

Posted in Features

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