Episode 34: Talkin' Thanksgiving Turkey Transcript


Nature Boost
November 2022


>>  Hey there and welcome back to Nature Boost.  I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  Many of us are preparing to gather with loved ones and sit down to a Thanksgiving meal next week with that famous bird on the table.  

[Turkey gobble sounds.]  

According to the National Turkey Federation, around 45 million turkeys are consumed each November.  The turkey has been the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table for decades, even though many historians believe the first Thanksgiving meal back in 1621 probably focused on other meats such as goose, venison, and duck.  

[Music playing]

>>  There's several theories on how the turkey became the main dish on Thanksgiving.  Some believe American writer; Sarah Hale was behind the myth.  Hale spearheaded the move to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, and in her campaign spread the story that the turkey was the main table fare at the first Thanksgiving.  Hale earned the moniker The Mother of Thanksgiving after Abraham Lincoln signed legislation establishing the holiday in 1863.  At that time, there were only two other national holidays celebrated in the US, Washington's birthday, and Independence Day.  FYI Christmas didn't become a national holiday until 1870.   And fun fact, Sarah Hale was also the author behind the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.  

[Mary Had A Little Lamb playing.]  

Looking back at the landscape of New England at that time, it is understandable why Hale believed that turkey was served at that first gathering.  The birds were native in North America and also easy to harvest because they were so prevalent.  The idea of eating the bird also set New Englanders apart from the British, kind of establishing the bird as American.  

According to historians at the Smithsonian's National Museum of History, turkey really became common as people began to move westward across the US over time bringing with them popular harvest festival foods such as turkey, or pumpkin and cranberry.  In addition, the birds were big.  The birds can weigh up to twenty pounds and just one turkey could feed a lot of people.  

>>  Hello, ladies, what will you be having for Thanksgiving?  

>>  I will be having turkey, hopefully it will be cooked to perfection.  

>>  And you, ma'am?  

>>  We will be having turkey.  But my favorite is fried turkey!  


>>  What are you going to be eating for Thanksgiving this year?  

>>  Turkey!  

>>  How are you going to cook it?  

>>  My mom bakes it.  She puts it in a brine, and it is really juicy.  

>>  Are you saying that because it's recorded and she's going to listen?  

>>  No.  It's actually really good.  

>>  Adult male turkeys, called gobblers or toms, will rip out a thunderous gobble to attract hens and to let other toms know who is top boss.  That gobble is famous.  But did you know turkeys actually make a variety of sounds?  They will often cluck like chickens while they are moving around looking for food.  

Turkeys will also yelp.  These squeaky high-pitched yelps are the most used words in turkey language, actually.  Three to seven yelps strung together is how females or hens will tell potential mates they're interested.  

[Turkey yelping]

We will talk more about Missouri's turkeys right after the break.  Stay tuned.  


>>  This is Discover Nature Notes with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  

>>  Chances are a turkey will land on your Thanksgiving table.  A bird simmered in American tradition.  The turkey was once so common and popular, that it was considered for our national emblem along with the bald eagle.  Turkeys are America's largest game bird.  They are swift runners and quick flyers for short distances.  They have over five thousand feathers.  Turkeys were domesticated by Native Americans and brought to Europe in the 16th century.  Taken from Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors, turkeys later returned as domesticated birds with the English settlers.  The wild turkey almost disappeared from North America due to excessive hunting and loss of forest habitat.  Today, restoration efforts have brought the turkey back in Missouri.  Whether wild or domestic, your Thanksgiving turkey is part of our American heritage.  

>>  Discover more by signing up today at discovernaturenotes.com.  

>>  The Missouri Department of Conservation serving nature and you!  

[End commercial.]  

>>  To learn a little bit more about Missouri's turkey population, I am on a very seasonal stroll here in Jefferson City with Missouri Department of Conservation's wild turkey biologist, Nick Oakley.  Nick, I will be throwing a lot of questions your way.  Alright?  Get ready for some of these curveballs.  


One thing I find super interesting about wild turkeys and that maybe other people may not be aware of is that they do roost in trees.  

>>  Yeah, that's right.  So, turkeys will roost in a tree.  It is a way of avoiding predation.  By getting up in the trees, they are getting off the ground away from animals that may try to predate them.  

>>  We are walking around here outside of MDC's headquarters where we do have some turkeys, some habitat for them out here.  I have seen turkeys out here actually.  But why aren't we seeing any in trees right now?  

>>  Well, they tend to go out into the roost in the evenings, so if you will, that is really where they sleep for lack of a better word.  

>>  Gotcha.  

>>  You wouldn't see them in the roost during the day unless you spooked them up into the tree for example.  

>>  So, do they get a full eight hours?  

>>  Yeah, that's a good question.  I'm not entirely sure actually how long a turkey stays in the roost.  It tends to go in a half hour before sunset, and they pitch down from the roost about a half hour before sunrise.  

>>  Okay, good to know.  For those who may not be aware.  Also, kind of going off of that, they are surprisingly pretty fast flyers.  

>>  That's right.  Turkeys can fly over short distances over 55 mph.  That is probably pretty uncommon, and their preference would be to run, but yeah, they can get up and go if they want to.  

>>  I don't know if I believe you.  I really don't.  How fast can they run?  

>>  Yeah, so they are quite a bit slower on the ground.  Somewhere in about the 10-15 mph range.  They can maintain that speed for quite a bit longer.  

>>  So earlier you were telling me a cool fact about them with their size compared to their wingspan.  

>>  Yeah, so turkeys have some of the smallest wings compared to their body weight of any birds in the world.  The area of the wing quite small relative to how much they relatively weigh.  

>>  How much do turkeys relatively weigh?  

>>  It depends on the age of course and the sex, but a female is going to weigh somewhere between 7-12 or 14 pounds, and then a gobbler will weigh you know, maybe as much as 24 pounds.  But when I looked it up, the world record weight on an adult male turkey, a gobbler was 36+ pounds.  So.  A monster.  

>>  Imagine that on your Thanksgiving table.  What do turkeys normally eat?  

>>  It.  Really kind of seasonally specific.  This time of year, they are really focused in on the hard mass.  The acorns and hickory nuts and things like that.  They also often eat things like grasses and forbs and of course any time they can run across a berry or soft mass they are excited about that.  

Poults in particular, the young turkeys focus for their first month or so almost entirely on insects.  That is a really important component of turkey habitat is to have good insect population as well.  They need that high protein diet so they can get big enough to fly down to the roost and stay safe.  Once they move off of 100% insect diet, they pick up grass and forbs and things like that.  

>>  I want to get into the obvious difference between male and females.  

The males have those really cool feathers at the back.  Is there a specific name for that?  

>>  Yeah, we would probably call that a fan.  

>>  Oh right, a fan, yeah, I've heard that.  Alright.  So, tell us . . . they kind of strut to attract females?  

>>  Yeah, that's right.  So, turkeys have a system of courtship.  They are lek maters, so they ask the male are actually trying to attract the female to them based on their courtship display.  

>>  Okay.  

>>  Some of that is with plumage, and movement, and other parts of that is with sound.  So that gobble you hear in the spring is part of that courtship display.  

>>  [Gobble sound.]  

>>  That was good.  

>>  Was it?  Stop it.  Can you do better?  

>>  Id 't think so.  

>>  I think you're shy.  

>>  I think I am.  

>>  Alright, whatever.  We were talking.  Another difference between the males and females, kind of gross, strange but true, is the shape of their poop right?  

>>  Yeah, that's right.  So, a gobbler's scat is going to be kind of elongated and perhaps J shaped depending on how fast he is moving.  Whereas, a hen, her scat will be a corkscrew or look like a snail shell that is something you can see in the forest and identify pretty quickly.  

>>   Why . . . I don't understand why they are different though.  

>>  Yeah, I don't either.  

>>  Nature's crazy, man!  With the difference between the males and females . . . the males have the wattle.  

>>  The wattle, yeah.  

>>  Tell us about.  That is that red little  . . .

>>  Flap of skin underneath its beak.  So as a male's head, if he picks his head up you can see a flap of skin that connects his neck to his beak, essentially.  


>>  They also have like a beard?  

>>  Yeah, so almost all males will have a beard unless there's a disease like beard draft [?] where it will fall off.  Actually, hens can have beards as well.  

>>  Oh, almost kind of how female deer can have antler sometimes.  

>>  Yes, same idea.  For sure.  

>>  Okay cool.  Are you a turkey hunter?  

>>  I am.  I am sort of a self-taught turkey hunter.  I grew up in southern Boone County in a family of not really consistent hunters.  I decided turkey hunting sounded fun.  So as a young man I decided to go out and give it a shot.  

>>  Okay.  So, for those and when I say those, I mean me, who have never tasted wild turkey versus like turkey you get in the store.  Can you give us a taste of the difference there?  

>>  Sure.  So, the first thing you will probably notice is just the color of the meat.  A wild turkey breast is going to be darker and look richer.  To me the flavor is stronger, I don't think it is in any way negative.  It just has more turkey flavor than a turkey you would buy at the store.  It will be a little tougher if you overcook it.  You should be real concerned with the temperature of the bird.  Bring it just up to the appropriate temperature and no further.  The best way to get a good result is to brine the turkey breast in a brining solution.  

>>  Are you having wild turkey for Thanksgiving this year?  

>>  Hmm, that's a good question.  I do have one breast left in the freezer that I might smoke for turkey.  If not, for anything other than an appetizer because it is so delicious and it never lasts very long.  

>>  Okay, sounds good, sounds good.  Tell us the benefit of turkeys.  What do they contribute to the ecosystem?  


>>  Turkeys you know have their role in the ecosystem like any animal.  In that they eat insects in the spring, and you know, they eat hard mass products.  They scratch around in the fall and that kind of disturbs the leaf layer.  Of course, lots of things like to eat turkey eggs, turkey poults, and even some adult turkeys.  They have that role where they are not a food source per say, but certainly get preyed upon.  I guess you would think of a turkey kind of in the same way as most ground nesting birds.  Often predated upon, but they certainly eat a bunch of stuff as well.  

>>  Why should people care about turkeys?  

>>  Well, turkeys are super cool, right?   I mean look how big and neat they are.  If you take out the hunting component, which I am happy to do.  They are just really interesting birds.  That courtship display is so unique and interesting.  When you hear a turkey gobble in the spring, it is completely unmistakable.  At least for me, it gets my heart beating pretty fast.  Then again, there is a whole subset of Missourians that really like to chase them and eat them.  Which I obviously am part of that group.  That part.  

>>  Great for hunting, great for wildlife watching.  Fun fact, my first day starting with MDC I was driving down the road to come to work and a turkey was crossing the road.  And believe it or not, that was the first time I had ever seen a wild turkey.  I saw it and I was like, "So that's what they look Like!"  They are kind of goofy looking.  

>>  They are.  They are kind of silly.  What was your first impression?  Were you shocked at how big it was?  

>>  I was, I was.  I remember, it was a hen and I remember just kind of their long neck and just the way that it was just kind of strutting across the street.  I obviously had to stop; I wasn't going to hit it.  I was just like, "Gosh, okay, yeah," it was a fitting way to start my first morning.  So, yeah . . .


>>  Have you ever had wild turkey yourself?  

>>  I have not.  No.  So, my family didn't hunt or really fish but you know, I grew up with an appreciation for the outdoors for sure.  But I would say I do have my hunter ed and I think I would like to try turkey hunting.  I think if anything even if it is not successful it is a good excuse to be out in nature in the fall and spring.  

>>  Yeah, it's definitely some of my favorite times of the year to be in the woods.  That spring turkey season the bugs aren't bad, the temperatures are nice, the mornings are nice and cool.  Maybe you stumble on a few mushrooms while you are out there.  I mean, there is lots to like about the spring.  

>>  Well said.  Nick, tell me, what can somebody do if they would like to create more turkey habitat on their property?  

>>  Great question.  The number one thing that turkeys need each year is brood rearing habitats, which is a habitat where a hen will bring her freshly hatched poults to so they can find bugs and also where they are sort of protected from predators.  What makes great brood rearing habitat is vegetation that is knee high, but no taller than waist high.  It is high enough to shield the poults, but not so tall that the hen can't see danger coming.  

The best way to do that if it is in a wooded area is do some timber stand improving, some thinning, and then follow that up with some fire that helps stimulate that forb layer and the grass layer and the vegetative layer on the forest floor.  If you are in more of an open landscape, then things like warm season or native pollinator type plots is a great habitat for turkeys.  The birds just flock to that.  That's good for this year's turkeys and for turkeys in the years following.  As we produce more babies, that means more babies down the road.  

>>  Perfect.  Okay.  Last thing.  Have you ever had a turducken?  

>>  I have not.  I have not.  But I would try it.  I am not opposed to it.  I would give it a shot.  

>>  Are you a pretty adventurous eater?  

>>  Yeah, I like to eat a lot of things.  


>>  Well if you ever try it, let me know.  

>>  I will let you know.  I will fill you in.  

>>  Well, I encourage everybody.  I want to thank you first of all.  I think you have given our listeners a lot of great facts to bring to their Thanksgiving table.  So, thank you for joining me on this interview today.  

>>  Yeah, I appreciate you having me.  It is nice to walk around.  

>>  Thanks again to wild turkey biologist, nick Oakley, for all the great info.  If you want to learn more about Massaruni's wild turkeys visit our website at missouriconservation.org.  Be sure to listen to next month's episode where we will be discussing the annual Christmas bird count with bird expert, Sarah Kendrick.  Remember, you can submit topic ideas for Nature Boost.  Send us a message at missouriconservation.org/natureboost if you have comments or any fun suggestions on things you would like to hear about on an episode.  

I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and as always encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.  

[Music playing.]  

[End podcast.]