History of turkeys in state of Ohio


It’s nearly Thanksgiving Day and many of us are focused on the traditions of family, friends, and food that surround this holiday. Most of us celebrate this holiday with the golden brown turkey nestled on a festive platter, but did you ever think about how that turkey gets to us?

Ohio ranks ninth in turkey production, producing 236 million pounds of turkey annually. Ohio is also home to more than 200,000 wild turkeys. While domestic and wild turkeys are genetically the same species, they are very different. According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, a wild turkey can fly distances of more than a mile, sometimes at speeds of 55 miles an hour. Domestic birds no longer have this ability to keep up with their wild counterparts as they are bred to be heavier, with a broader breast much desired by producers and chefs. Wild turkeys are slimmer, tall and long-legged, and can run up to 20 miles an hour. They also have keen eyesight and are cunning, making them a challenging target for hunters and predators.

The divergence between wild and domestic turkeys began hundreds of years ago with Native Americans. Turkey relics have been found in Arizona dating as far back as 25 A.D. Turkey raising may be one of the oldest forms of meat production in the Northern Hemisphere. Spanish explorers took Mexican wild turkeys domesticated by Aztecs to Europe in the early 1500s. The turkey spread throughout Europe and was introduced in England, where it was relished for gourmet dinners. Then colonists brought turkeys with them when they came to the New World, only to find that turkey was already a staple here. Today, 87 percent of those in the United Kingdom savor roast turkey as their traditional Christmas dish, whereas in the United States, turkey is especially associated with Thanksgiving.

Wildlife enthusiasts and hunters view wild turkeys as an Ohio conservation success story. Wild turkeys prefer mature forests with substantial cover and suitable food sources. As settlers changed Ohio land from forests to agriculture, turkey habitat disappeared. By 1904, there were no birds left in Ohio. Through dedicated efforts by many individuals and organizations in multiple states, turkeys were reintroduced, and in 2017, Ohio’s population was estimated at around 200,000 birds. All of Ohio’s 88 counties have populations of wild turkeys. I have a photo of a few colleagues and I (a much, much younger me) assisting staff from the Ohio Division of Wildlife to release birds trapped in Knox County into Fairfield County. We were so excited to be part of the experience.

There is plenty of interesting information about turkeys, wild and domestic, and here are few:

• http://extension.illinois.edu/turkey/turkey_facts.cfm for general fun facts

• http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/ for a guide to Ohio’s wildlife species and for the Wild Ohio Cookbook

• www.farmflavor.com/ for information about U.S. and Ohio agriculture with recipes

• www.ohioproud.org/ for sources of Ohio agricultural products and farm market locations

No matter if your holiday turkey is wild or domestic, you will be part of the 88 percent of Americans sharing turkey on Thanksgiving. Maybe you will serve it with some side dishes made with other locally grown and produced food, supporting Ohio’s number one industry, agriculture!

Visit Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District’s website at www.delawareswcd.org to learn more about conservation. Our second annual election and open house will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 20, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Please stop by and see us!


By Bonnie Dailey

Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District

Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.delawareswcd.org.

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