Talking Turkey

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Let’s talk about turkey. Do you like it? Do you hate it? Does its waddling stupidity amuse you? Or does it just make you think wistfully about how the dinosaurs are extinct but this thing, this prehistoric, ungainly animal that will drown itself looking up during a rainstorm, still exists?

Do you just like eating it?

Whatever your personal feelings about turkeys, a few things are true, and you might not know them.

One: No one really agrees why we call them turkeys, but the leading theory is that early European settlers who encountered the native North American bird mistook it for a common guineafowl usually imported from Turkey.

Two: That disturbing-looking wattle hanging from a turkey’s chin is called a snood.

Three: Native Americans domesticated the turkey around 800 B.C. but mostly used the birds for their feathers, which were often important in rituals and ceremonies. They didn’t begin eating the bird until 1100 A.D.

Now, of course, eating is mostly what we do with turkeys. (These days, most of the feathers are composted or used for the costume of Big Bird.) Whether you like it stuffed, roasted, deep-fried, sliced into deli meat, or combined with the meats of several other birds into the unholy portmanteau-animal John Madden calls a Turducken, turkey is one of the most recognizable proteins on the U.S.A.’s menu. And at no time is that more apparent than Thanksgiving. According to the National Turkey Foundation, Americans consumed 46 million turkeys during the holiday in 2015, and another 22 million at Christmas. Over the course of the year, Americans ate 212 million birds.

Where do all these turkeys come from? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the estimated 240 million turkeys produced in 2016 come primarily from six states: Minnesota (44 million), North Carolina (33 million), Arkansas (26 million), Indiana (20 million), and Missouri (19.7 million). Perhaps a few of those came from Turkey Town, NC, which has a population of 296 and is one of four places in the United States named after the plump and stupid bird, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The others are Turkey Creek Village, LA; Turkey City, TX; and Turkey Creek, AZ.

There is also a healthy population of wild turkeys in the United States, in part due to a concerted effort in the 1940s to repopulate rural areas with the bird, after decades of over-hunting and habitat loss. Turkeys can now be found in all 49 states outside Alaska, and have recovered to such an extent that there are now hunting season for them. In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 21% of U.S. hunters pursue turkeys, putting the second on the list of targets, after deer.

The 7.8 million turkeys in North America prefer forests, but can also be found in clearings and grassland, especially in the Southwest. And like us, they like eating: mostly nuts, acorns, and seeds, but also small insects, snails, and salamanders.

Think about that next time you get out the carving knife on Thanksgiving Day.