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Coast Chronicles: Turkey tracks lead to local history books

THE NATIONAL WILD TURKEY FEDERATION/1985The National Wild Turkey Federation, founded in 1973, is a national nonprofit conservation and education foundation that raises money through its annual, highly collectible conservation stamp program.
THE NATIONAL WILD TURKEY FEDERATION/1985The National Wild Turkey Federation, founded in 1973, is a national nonprofit conservation and education foundation that raises money through its annual, highly collectible conservation stamp program.

Trekking across Turkey in my younger years, I never saw a turkey, as in the fowl we are still eating as Thanksgiving leftovers. In that country that straddles Europe and Asia, I spied interesting new birds but the feathered creature we Americans call a turkey was missing.

Because turkey meat is appreciated across the world, domesticated turkeys likely exist in Turkey as they do in much of Eurasia, but their ancestors came from North America. This native bird, Meleagris gallopavo, used to roam in the millions before over-hunting for meat and feathers -- or just plain "sport" -- forced them to the brink of extinction by the 20th century.

Fossil remains in Mexico, Canada and the United States indicate this bird's provenance dates back at least 2.5 million years, possibly longer, before man's greed nearly wiped the species out on the American continent. Mississippi was no exception. Luckily, modern conservation efforts are paying off, and turkeys again roam in the woods and fields of every U.S. state except Alaska.

Mississippi has an estimated 300,000 wild turkeys, and as one of the top producing states for domesticated turkey, we can add tens of thousands more on turkey farms.

Most years, Americans gobble 675 million pounds of turkey every Thanksgiving, although the figures for this year are iffy as the price of the bird skyrocketed after so many healthy farm birds were killed as a precautionary step to prevent the spread of an avian virus.

The poor turkey historically is threatened from all directions, especially this time of year when most states host wild turkey hunting seasons. Penalties are stiff for hunters killing more than laws allow.

Tracks from olden times

So how did they come to be called "turkeys?" You've likely guessed the country of Turkey has something to do with the name, even though the bird is not native there. The story goes that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in central Mexico, they noted Native Americans raised big birds.

Thousand of years ago, the Anasazi, and later the Aztecs, perfected the domestication of wild turkey for food and feathers. How the Spaniards abused the Aztecs in the early 1500s is legendary, but they also robbed them of precious things, such as the American turkey, to take back to the motherland.

Early Europeans misidentified the bird they saw running around so plentifully in the New World as a type of guinea fowl found in the country of Turkey and already popular on European tables. Because this guinea fowl was imported by "Turkey Merchants" (named so because of their origin country) the guinea fowl was commonly called a "turkey" in Europe.

That's why New World Europeans incorrectly identified the larger American species as "turkey fowl." Popular science wasn't advanced enough to know this American bird was not a guinea fowl. For no reason of correctness, "fowl" eventually was dropped from the name and the shortened version "turkey" has survived the centuries here and in many countries abroad.

From its 16th-century Spanish roost, the purloined and better-tasting American turkey spread to other continents.

By 1575, turkey was the usual Christmas dinner in England, and a lot of those folks soon embarked for the American colonies. Some brought precious homeland cargo with them, including their prized turkey. Imagine how surprised the colonists were when they saw the same bird cavorting wild in the New World.

Tracks from recent times

Fast-forward to 1915 -- that's a century ago -- and let's peek in on Mrs. L. Williams' poultry farm in Perkinston. The turkey portion of this piney woods enterprise was overseen by C.N. Williams, who, as this newspaper reported, was "better known here and on the Coast as 'The Turkey Boy.'"

Further explained the newspaper:

"The Mammoth Bronze Tom, the 38-pounder, heads the herd. A raid was made on this happy family several nights ago by a possum, the thief killing 21 of the young. On the next night everything was put in readiness for capturing the turkey thief, which was done at 9 o'clock by the old family dog, Sharp, an old and faithful watchman and guardian of the Turkey Hill Poultry Farm."

An even better tale likely exists for Turkey Creek, the historic Gulfport community founded in 1866 by emancipated slaves, although a common story doesn't make the rounds. Hancock County has a Turkey Bayou Road, and sightings of wild turkeys in the Pascagoula River Basin remain commonplace.

Much earlier, Pierre Le-Moyne, sieur D'Iberville, was tasked by the French king to establish a Gulf fortress near the Mississippi River. While exploring what is today the Mississippi Coast, Iberville noted in a journal entry dated Feb. 13, 1699, "tracks of turkey."

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.

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