KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No birds of a feather these. The American wild turkey and its cousin the domestic turkey have little in common except as the center piece on dinner tables.
“Blimps in a pen,” the University of Tennessee’s Billy Minser calls the domestic bird.
“If the wild turkey is a decathlon champion, the domestic turkey is a sumo wrestler.”
Both are good to eat, said Minser, a wildlife researcher at UT-Knoxville who helped reestablish the wild turkey in all 95 Tennessee counties.
Minser said the domestic turkey is often served during the holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s while the wild bird is usually enjoyed eaten in the spring, when it can be hunted legally.
Domestic turkeys are bred to be fast growing, heavy-breasted, earthbound birds, Minser said. From a few ounces at hatching, the domestic fowl takes only 18 weeks to reach a weight of 20 or more pounds.
“They can’t jump on a foot stool, much less fly to the top of a tree. By comparison, the domestic’s wild cousin is quick, agile and spends every night in the safety of tall timber.
“At about 17 pounds, the wild turkey can fly 55 miles per hour and run 25 miles an hour,” Minser said. “Their eyesight is so good they can spot the smallest movement of a tiny insect.”
Although well adapted to its environment and life among its non-human predators, the wild bird was almost wiped out by unregulated year-round hunting, he said.
The first blow to Tennessee’s turkey population came from hungry pioneers.
“There were no grocery stores. If getting food meant going out at night and shooting 15 or 20 turkeys on their roosts, they did it.”
Then came the Civil War with thousands of ravenous soldiers who took every opportunity to supplement their scarce or nonexistent rations with wild turkey.
“The soldiers ate whatever they could get. By the end of the war, the state’s wild turkey population was almost gone,” Minser said.
Despite the brush with extinction, a few hardy gobblers survived until 1954, when serious restoration efforts began.
“The 1954 harvest statewide was less than 10 birds. Since then the population has grown to well over 100,000, and the harvest last year was 16,000,” Minser said. Restoration of the wild turkey has been equally successful in other states.
“Twenty-five years ago there were 17 states from which the wild turkey had been eliminated,” Minser said. “Now the turkey roams all 48 lower states, from the swamps of the Everglades to elevations of 10,000 feet in the Rockies.”
Persistent deep snow is one of the bird’s few obstacles.
“They are opportunistic feeders, but if the snow stays so deep that they can’t get to the ground to forage, they can’t eat.”
Depending on the region and time of year, wild turkeys eat everything from frogs, snakes and shrimp to all types of fruit, seeds, nuts and berries. They also graze like cattle, feeding on clover and grasses.
Meanwhile, their domestic cousins are porking up on corn, soybeans and vitamins, Minser said.
Contact: Billy Minser (423-974-7126)