Happy Turkey Day, America!

United States - Scott #3899g (2005)
United States – Scott #3899g (2005)

Thanksgiving Day — my favorite American holiday — this year falls on the same day as my favorite Thai holiday, Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง). I covered the latter in an article on A Stamp A Day in 2016; my Thanksgiving article in 2016 detailed the 1621 harvest feast held at Plymouth Plantation while last year’s account dealt with a history of the holiday itself as well as a few of the traditions surrounding it.

It has been an odd day here at my school in Phang Nga, Thailand. While I did see a couple of classes making the traditional krathongs to float in the local canal, it wasn’t the extensive holiday atmosphere that I’d become accustomed to in Phuket. I didn’t even hear the “Loy Krathong” song played at all (once you hear it, it stays stuck in your brain for days!). I taught one high school lesson comparing and contrasting the Thai holiday with that of Thanksgiving and in a grade 1 primary class, I taught the kids how to draw a turkey by tracing their hands. Most Thais think that the kind of turkey we eat at this time of year is nothing more than a “fat chicken” (gai pom pui in Thai).

Thanksgiving cheer distributed for men in service. New York City turned host to the boys in service today and cared for every man in uniform. Underwood & Underwood. (United States War Department). circa November 1918.

I believe that the last time I’ve eaten a roast turkey dinner was either Christmas Day 2007 or 2008. At that time, a former NASA rocket scientist owned a large eatery in the southern part of Phuket island. Don’s Mall specialized in holiday lunches and dinners, all-you-can-eat buffet style. It was extremely popular and I believe all expats on the island were greatly saddened when Don finally retired and moved upcountry. At least in Phuket, I do have the option of visiting one of the many resorts that do Thanksgiving or Christmas meals but those are vastly expensive (Don’s was 450 baht per person, all-you-can-eat, where most resorts charge nearly ten times that amount). This year, I’m in Phang Nga where the only fast food outlet is a single KFC about a 30-minute walk away. I plan to attempt a delivery consisting of some fried chicken and a large mashed potatoes and gravy (along with cole slaw and perhaps an egg tart or two.

I’d never seen today’s featured stamp before it arrived last month on an envelope containing some stamps I’d ordered from a dealer in the U.S.  Scott #3899 is a self-adhesive pane of 10 se-tenant self-adhesive stamps portraying a Northeast deciduous forest released by the United States Postal Service on March 3, 2005, in New York City. The stamps include various forms of wildlife amongst the trees and vegetation:  eastern buckmouth (Scott #3899a), red-shouldered hawk (Scott #3899b), eastern red bat (Scott #3899c), white-tailed deer (Scott #3899d), black bear (Scott #3899e), long-tailed weasel (Scott #3899f), ovenbird (Scott #3899h), red eft (Scott #3899i), and eastern chipmunk (Scott #3899j) in addition to the wild turkey featured on Scott #3899g. All were printed by Avery Dennison using the photogravure process in a quantity of 5,600,000 with serpentine die cuts of 10¾. Each stamp is denominated 37 cents. This sheet was the seventh issue of the Nature of America series.

A flock of Eastern Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) in Leon County, Florida. The turkey on the far right is a jake. One can tell this by the middle tail feather sticking up high than the rest of the feathers. Photo taken by Tim Ross on March 11, 2009.
Deciduous trees grow in a climate with cold winters, warm summers, and year-round precipitation. The broad-leaved trees of the Northeast deciduous forest shed their leaves annually in the autumn and early winter. When the dying leaves lose their green color in the fall, reds and golds emerge that create a spectacular display. A new set of leaves grows each spring. Beech, maple, and birch trees predominate, with oak, black cherry, ash, elm, and aspen also present. The tallest of these trees form a dense, leafy canopy about 100 feet high. Little sunlight reaches the forest floor in the summer, where shade-tolerant mosses, ferns, and mushrooms grow. Shrubs, therefore, grow mainly in clearings and at the forest edges. Flowering plants flourish in the spring before the trees are fully leafed.
Snails, insects, and spiders are found in the forest as well as many cold-blooded animals such as snakes, frogs, salamanders, and turtles. Prominent mammals include birds, mice, moles, muskrats, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, weasels, beavers, foxes, bears, and deer. Many of the birds migrate south in the fall; some of the mammals hibernate during the winter.
A male (tom) wild turkey displaying during mating season.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is an upland ground bird native to North America and is the heaviest member of the diverse Galliformes. It is the same species as the domestic turkey, which was originally derived from a southern Mexican subspecies of wild turkey (not the related ocellated turkey). Although native to North America, the turkey probably got its name from the domesticated variety being imported to Britain in ships coming from the Levant via Spain. The British at the time therefore associated the wild turkey with the country Turkey and the name prevails.

Adult wild turkeys have long reddish-yellow to grayish-green legs. The body feathers are generally blackish and dark, sometimes grey brown overall with a coppery sheen that becomes more complex in adult males. Adult males, called toms or gobblers, have a large, featherless, reddish head, red throat, and red wattles on the throat and neck. The head has fleshy growths called caruncles. Juvenile males are called jakes; the difference between an adult male and a juvenile is that the jake has a very short beard and his tail fan has longer feathers in the middle. The adult male’s tail fan feathers will be all the same length.[5] When males are excited, a fleshy flap on the bill expands, and this, the wattles and the bare skin of the head and neck all become engorged with blood, almost concealing the eyes and bill. The long fleshy object over a male’s beak is called a snood. Each foot has three toes in front, with a shorter, rear-facing toe in back; males have a spur behind each of their lower legs.

Male turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. The preen gland (uropygial gland) is also larger in male turkeys compared to female ones. In contrast to the majority of other birds, they are colonized by bacteria of unknown function (Corynebacterium uropygiale). Females, called hens, have feathers that are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Parasites can dull coloration of both sexes; in males, coloration may serve as a signal of health. The primary wing feathers have white bars. Turkeys have 5000 to 6000 feathers. Tail feathers are of the same length in adults, different lengths in juveniles.

Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo intermedia walking on a grassland in the bottom of the canyon. Taken at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon, Texas, on May 10, 2006.
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo intermedia walking on a grassland in the bottom of the canyon. Taken at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon, Texas, on May 10, 2006.

Males typically have a “beard”, a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of the breast. Beards average 230 mm (9.1 inches) in length. In some populations, 10 to 20% of females have a beard, usually shorter and thinner than that of the male. The adult male (or “tom”) normally weighs from 5 to 11 kg (11 to 24 pounds) and measures 100–125 cm (39–49 inches) in length. The adult female (or “hen”) is typically much smaller at 2.5–5.4 kg (5.5–11.9 pounds) and is 76 to 95 cm (30 to 37 inches) long. The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, weighed 16.85 kg (37.1 pounds), with records of tom turkeys weighing over 13.8 kg (30 pounds) uncommon but not rare.

Wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forests with scattered openings such as pastures, fields, orchards and seasonal marshes. They seemingly can adapt to virtually any dense native plant community as long as coverage and openings are widely available. Open, mature forest with a variety of interspersion of tree species appear to be preferred. In the Northeast of North America, turkeys are most profuse in hardwood timber of oak-hickory (Quercus-Carya) and forests of red oak (Quercus rubra), beech (Fagus grandifolia), cherry (Prunus serotina) and white ash (Fraxinus americana). Best ranges for turkeys in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont sections have an interspersion of clearings, farms, and plantations with preferred habitat along principal rivers and in cypress (Taxodium distichum) and tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) swamps. In Appalachian and Cumberland plateaus, birds occupy mixed forest of oaks and pines on southern and western slopes, also hickory with diverse understories.

A wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, in flight just off of Croy Road, near Uvas Canyon County Park in Morgan Hill, California. Photo taken on November 24, 2016.

Despite their weight, wild turkeys, unlike their domesticated counterparts, are agile, fast fliers. In ideal habitat of open woodland or wooded grasslands,[19] they may fly beneath the canopy top and find perches. They usually fly close to the ground for no more than 400 m (a quarter mile).

Wild turkeys have very good eyesight, but their vision is very poor at night. They will not see a predator until it is too late. At twilight most turkeys will head for the trees and roost well off the ground, up to 16 meters: it is safer to sleep here in numbers than to risk being victim to predators who hunt by night. Because wild turkeys don’t migrate, in snowier parts of the species’s habitat like the Northeast, Rockies, much of Canada, and the Midwest, it is very important for this bird to learn to select large conifer trees where they can fly onto the branches and shelter from blizzards.

Turkeys have many vocalizations: “gobbles”, “clucks”, “putts”, “purrs”, “yelps”, “cutts”, “whines”, “cackles”, and “kee-kees”. In early spring, males older than 1-year-old (sometimes called gobblers or toms) and, occasionally to a lesser extent, males younger than 1-year-old (sometimes called jakes) gobble to announce their presence to females and competing males. The gobble can carry for up to a mile. Males also emit a low-pitched “drumming” sound; produced by the movement of air in the air sack in the chest, similar to the booming of a prairie chicken. In addition they produce a sound known as the “spit” which is a sharp expulsion of air from this air sack. Hens “yelp” to let gobblers know their location. Gobblers often yelp in the manner of females, and hens can gobble, though they rarely do so. Immature males, called jakes, often yelp.

Female wild turkey with young, from Plate 6 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Wild Turkey, circa 1827-1838.

The idea that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey as the national bird of the United States comes from a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah Bache on January 26, 1784. The main subject of the letter is a criticism of the Society of the Cincinnati, which he likened to a chivalric order, which contradicted the ideals of the newly founded American republic. In one section of the letter, Franklin remarked on the appearance of the bald eagle on the Society’s crest:

Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country… I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Franklin never publicly voiced opposition to the bald eagle as a national symbol.

Seminole Indians having a Thanksgiving meal in the mid-1950s. From the Irvin M. Peithmann Collection of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

The wild turkey, throughout its range, plays a significant role in the cultures of many Native American tribes all over North America. Outside of the Thanksgiving feast, it is a favorite meal in eastern tribes. Eastern Native American tribes consumed both the eggs and meat, sometimes turning the latter into a type of jerky to preserve it and make it last through cold weather. They provided habitat by burning down portions of forests to create meadows which would attract mating birds, and thus give a clear shot to hunters. The feathers of turkeys also often made their way into the rituals and headgear of many tribes. Many leaders, such as Catawba chiefs, traditionally wore turkey feather headdresses. Significant peoples of several tribes, including Muscogee Creek and Wampanoag, wore turkey feather cloaks. The turkey clan is one of the three Lenape clans. Movements of wild turkeys inspired the Caddo tribe’s turkey dance. The Navajo people of Northeastern Arizona, New Mexico and Utah call the turkey Tązhii and relate the bird to the corn and seeds which the Turkey in Navajo folklore brought from the Third Navajo World. It is one of the Navajos’ sacred birds, with the Navajo people using the feathers and parts in multiple traditional ceremonies.

The centerpiece of contemporary Thanksgiving in the United States and is a large meal, generally centered on a large turkey, usually roasted and stuffed (but sometimes deep-fried instead). Thanksgiving is also colloquially known as “Turkey Day” due to the prominence of turkey as the meal of choice. In fact, 45 million turkeys were consumed on Thanksgiving Day alone in 2015. With 85 percent of Americans partaking in the meal, that’s an estimated 276 million Americans dining on the festive poultry, spending an expected $1.05 billion on turkeys for Thanksgiving in 2016.

Oven roasted turkey

The turkey is served with a variety of side dishes which vary from traditional dishes such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, to ones that reflect regional or cultural heritage. Mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, various fall vegetables, squash, Brussels sprouts and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. Green bean casserole was introduced in 1955 and remains a favorite. The majority of the dishes in the traditional American version of Thanksgiving dinner are made from foods native to the New World, as according to tradition the Pilgrims received these foods, or learned how to grow them, from the Native Americans.

Turkey may be an exception. In his book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick suggests that the Pilgrims might already have been familiar with turkey in England, even though the bird is native to the Americas. The Spaniards had brought domesticated turkeys back from Central America in the early 17th century, and the birds soon became popular fare all over Europe, including England, where turkey (as an alternative to the traditional goose) became a “fixture at English Christmases”. The Pilgrims did not observe Christmas.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains.

The use of the turkey in the United States for Thanksgiving precedes Lincoln’s nationalization of the holiday in 1863. Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that no “Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” and Benjamin Franklin had high regard for the wild turkey as an American icon but turkey was uncommon as Thanksgiving fare until after 1800. By 1857, turkey had become part of the traditional dinner in New England.

The broad breasted white turkey is particularly bred for Thanksgiving dinner and similar large feasts; its large size (specimens can grow to over 40 pounds) and meat content make it ideal for such situations, although the breed must be artificially bred and suffers from health problems due to its size.

Most Thanksgiving turkeys are stuffed with a bread-based mixture and roasted. Sage is the traditional herb added to the stuffing, along with chopped celery, carrots, and onions. Other ingredients, such as chopped chestnuts or other tree nuts, crumbled sausage or bacon, cranberries, raisins, or apples, may be added to stuffing. If this mixture is prepared outside the bird, it may be known as dressing. Deep-fried turkey is rising in popularity due to its shorter preparation time, but carries safety risks.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy receives the annual White House Thanksgiving turkey from the National Turkey Federation, just three days before his assassination in Dallas. Kennedy unofficially spares the turkey on November 19, 1963. The practice of “pardoning” turkeys in this manner became a permanent tradition in 1989.

The consumption of turkey on Thanksgiving is so ingrained in American culture that each year since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the President of the United States with one live turkey and  two dressed  turkeys in a ceremony known as the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. These turkeys were initially slaughtered and eaten for the President’s Thanksgiving dinner. John F. Kennedy was the first president reported to spare the turkey given to him (he announced he didn’t plan to eat the bird), and Ronald Reagan was the first to grant the turkey a presidential pardon, which he jokingly presented to his 1987 turkey (a turkey that would indeed be spared and sent to a petting zoo).

There are legends that state that the “pardoning” tradition dates to the Harry Truman administration or even to an anecdote of Abraham Lincoln pardoning his son’s pet turkey (a Christmas turkey); both stories have been quoted in more recent presidential speeches, but neither has any evidence in the Presidential record. In more recent years, two turkeys have been pardoned, in case the original turkey becomes unavailable for presidential pardoning.

U.S. Army Spc. Alexander Raborn, the designated turkey for the Kabul Satellite Turkey Chase 10K run, takes part in the event November 27, 2011, at Headquarters International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command in Kabul, Afghanistan. Raborn was selected to be “chased” by a variety of coalition runners from ISAF’s contributing nations. More than 100 runners showed up for the event despite gusty winds and rain-soaked roads. The race was a satellite version of the main Turkey Chase held Thanksgiving Day in Bethesda, Maryland.

George H. W. Bush, who served as vice president under Reagan, made the turkey pardon a permanent annual tradition upon assuming the presidency in 1989, a tradition that has been carried on by every president each year since. The pardoned turkeys have typically ended up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. From 1989 to 2004, they were sent to a children’s farm called “Frying Pan Farm Park” in Herndon, Virginia. From 2009 to 2013, they were sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate near Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2014 they were sent to an estate in Leesburg, Virginia, once owned by former state governor and turkey farmer Westmoreland Davis. However, from 2005 to 2009 they were sent to either Walt Disney World or Disneyland. The turkeys rarely live to see the next Thanksgiving due to being bred for large size.

Thanksgiving dinner is the largest eating event in the United States. As a result of the size of Thanksgiving dinner, Americans eat more food on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.

Flag of the United States, 1959-date
Flag of the United States, 1959-date

One thought on “Happy Turkey Day, America!

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