There is a touching scene in the great Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor/James Dean move “Giant,” where the Taylor character, Leslie, is visiting back home in Maryland with her three small children. The kids have been feeding and playing with a turkey on the farm, whom they have nicknamed Pedro.
Now, the children are seated around the Thanksgiving Day table – heads adorned in construction paper feather headdresses (yes, this is a 1950s movie), watching as the kitchen staff bring in the star of the meal: a fat, beautifully roasted, turkey on a platter.
The kids stare for a moment, and the tiniest of the kids (who might very well be uttering her first word right there) points and says … “Pedro.” The other children cry hysterically and dinner is ruined.
Regardless of whether the turkey is given a name, this uniquely American bird will be the centerpiece of many a holiday table this month and next. That and the fact that two upcoming Preservation Parks programs focus on the bird are good reasons to take a closer look at Meleagris gallopavo.
I usually hear, rather than see, wild turkeys in the parks, especially at Char-Mar Ridge and Hogback Ridge. Their raucous gobble gobble is unmistakable, and I’ll often hear it in the distance as I walk the trails. When I do see a flock of turkeys, they are fun to watch as they stride around the woods.
Everyone probably knows that the wild turkey is native to North America, but they probably don’t know that the bird is actually named for the nation of Turkey. Early European visitors to America said the bird reminded them of the “Turkey bird” from home – likely an African guinea fowl that made it to Europe via a Mediterranean route that included Istanbul.
Here are a few more facts about the turkey that you can share during your Thanksgiving meal:
Turkeys are loud and they are fast. Their signature “gobble-gobble” can be hear a mile or more away, and turkeys can reach a top speed of about 25 miles per hour. (The fastest human was clocked at 28 mph during a sprint).
Their bald heads can change from white to red or even blue in a matter of seconds if the turkey is excited. To me, this patriotic color scheme makes the bird seem even more American.
Wild turkeys can fly only short distances, but those short spurts of flight are enough to get the birds high up into surrounding trees, which is where they like to roost. Turkeys travel in flocks, and use their strong feet to scratch leaf litter out of the way in search of nuts, berries, insects and snails.
The tradition of the U.S. President pardoning a turkey before Thanksgiving dates back to Harry Truman who, it is said, granted the first-ever presidential pardon to one lucky bird back in 1947. This grand gesture, which continues today, does not do the turkey a great deal of good, however. The spared birds usually die of natural causes in a year or two anyway.
One final fact can make all of us happy: Wild turkeys almost went extinct in 1930 from loss of habitat and over hunting. But after more than 80 years of effort by groups such as the National Wildlife Federation (from whom I borrowed these facts), there are more than seven million wild turkeys in North and Central America.
To learn more about Ohio’s largest game bird, join Preservation Parks at the “Drop in Discovery: Wild Turkey Weekend” program. We’ll provide some games and crafts, along with natural history of the bird. The program, which is free and for all ages, will be held Nov. 19 and 20, noon- 4 p.m., at Deer Haven Park, 4183 Liberty Road.
Then, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, park visitors can walk off some of their feast in our last Fall Bird Walk. We’ll meet at Hogback Ridge Park, 2656 Hogback Road, on Nov. 26 at 8 a.m. to watch for the resident birds who will winter here in Ohio. We might even catch a glimpse of you-know-who — if he’s escaped Pedro’s fate.
For information on Preservation Parks programs, visit www.preservationparks.com.