Wednesday, August 20, 2014 · 4:29 p.m.

Talking turkey

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According to the National Turkey Federation, nearly 88 percent of Americans said they eat turkey at Thanksgiving—that’s an estimated 45 million turkeys cooked and eaten in one day. (Photo: TWRA staff)

Two turkeys from Virginia will travel by official motorcade on Monday to Washington, D.C., to take part in the 65th anniversary of the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. The gobblers will spend two nights in the posh W Hotel, dining on nuts, seeds and cranberries, and will be pardoned and named by President Barack Obama the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, Nov. 21.

This uniquely American pardoning ceremony is said to date back to 1947, when President Harry Truman received a turkey as a gift from the National Turkey Federation. However, “officially” the first National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation took place with President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Each year since, the president has formally pardoned a turkey, sparing it from ending up on the Thanksgiving table.

Following this year’s pardoning, the two turkeys will be driven to George and Martha Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. The turkeys will arrive in a horse-drawn carriage, guided by staff dressed in 18th-century costumes, to a ceremony featuring a trumpet fanfare and proclamation read by Washington's farm manager, James Anderson.

Perhaps no other bird has had quite the impact on the inhabitants of North America than the wild turkey. Truly an all-American bird, Benjamin Franklin—one of the country’s Founding Fathers—lobbied for the turkey to serve as the country’s national symbol in 1776 because he considered it a more noble and respectable bird than the bald eagle.

Within the natural landscape, wild turkeys were found throughout North America when European settlers arrived on the East Coast. The eastern wild turkey is the most abundant of the five subspecies found in North America.

Wild turkeys live in wooded areas with scattered openings and fields and roost in trees at night. Their diet in the wild includes acorns, nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and salamanders.

Unregulated hunting paired with significant habitat loss led to drastic turkey population drops in the 19th and 20th centuries. By 1813, Connecticut had lost its wild turkeys; Vermont had lost its wild turkeys by 1842, and other states followed. By 1920, the wild turkey was lost from 18 of the original 39 states and Ontario, Canada.

“At the turn of the century, turkeys were in short supply because there were not many laws related to market hunting,” Joey Wray, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Region III officer, said. “However, today turkeys have come back and can be found in all 50 states.”

More than 7 million wild turkeys populate North America today, thanks to modern wildlife management efforts. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, two critical factors were responsible for the return of the turkey to the wild: trap–and–transplant programs of state game agencies beginning in the early 1950sand the formation of the NWTF in 1973.

Each year, wild turkey hunting seasons provide hunting opportunities to more than 3 million people throughout North America, according to NWTF. In Tennessee, the 2012 wild turkey harvest was the fourth-highest on record, according to Wray.

The difference between a wild turkey and a farm-raised turkey is taste, according to Wray.

“The turkeys that you eat at Thanksgiving are typically farm-raised to be consumed, so they don’t get as much exercise, and they eat different foods than turkeys in the wild,” Wray said. “A wild bird is going to taste different than one you would buy at the grocery store.”

To learn more about wild turkeys in Tennessee, click here.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor travel and sustainable living. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

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