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Interesting origin of a familiar bird

It was quite warm, almost hot, as I set out on a noon jog in Fargo some years ago in early June; so warm that I had removed my T-shirt to carry in my hand.

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Restoration and translocation efforts of wild turkeys have been a rousing success recently. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Keith Corliss

It was quite warm, almost hot, as I set out on a noon jog in Fargo some years ago in early June; so warm that I had removed my T-shirt to carry in my hand.

My route would take me along the bike trails on the Red River’s west bank north of Lindenwood Park, ultimately finishing at The Forum building downtown.

The sights, sounds and smells of an early summer day were evident at every stride as I basked in the vigor of a lunchtime workout. Basked, that is, until my reverie was shaken by a close encounter with what at first blush seemed like a pterodactyl.

Indeed, as I passed under the First Avenue bridge, a dark flying object became apparent out of the corner of my eye.

Having risen from the shady greenery it quickly grew in relative size until it became evident that, whatever this was, it had designs on striking me in the head.

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Instinctively, I ducked and rolled and the creature missed me. At that moment, with my heart beating rapidly and my breaths coming in short gasps, I realized I had just been forced to the ground by a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).

I thought about that encounter last week while I, like many others around the country, was savoring a Thanksgiving turkey.

Granted, this delicious bird was mass produced, nonetheless it shared much of its genetic code with the creature that flew at me that summer day.

Wild turkeys are New World birds that have been domesticated for centuries. Comprised of six recognized subspecies, populations had been reduced to small isolated fragments around the continent by the mid-19th century.

However, 20th century efforts at restoring and translocating birds have been a rousing success ever since. Today wild turkeys are found in every state except Alaska, even in areas where there was no historical presence, including North Dakota.

Every schoolchild knows this bird having made craft paper cutouts of it represented by the outline of their hands with fingers extended. It’s a species to be confused with virtually nothing else when seen in the wild, particularly in spring when males (known as toms) are displaying. In general the birds are large and dark with long legs, long featherless necks, and large rounded tails tipped with a rusty beige color.

They are mostly encountered in the cover of forests or forest edges where the birds often form large foraging flocks.

That this animal has come to grace dining tables around the world should come as little surprise given their abundance of meat, rich taste, large size and relatively small bones. Wild birds were brought back to Europe from Mexico by Spanish explorers starting in the early 1500s. The turkeys were quickly domesticated and became popular fare in the Old World. In an ironic twist, early English settlers brought turkeys with them when they settled on the Atlantic Coast. The turkeys that we pull from the freezer section at the grocery store today are descendants of the original Mexican subspecies.

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Beginning in the early 1950s, wild turkeys were introduced to North Dakota where it was not native. Two subspecies were involved - the Eastern one, sylvestris, and one historically from the southern Rocky Mountains and Southwest known as Merriam’s wild turkey, merriami (Merriam’s wild turkey is believed by some to have been domesticated by the ancient Anazasi peoples).

To separate individuals into appropriate subspecies any more is somewhat problematic given the extensive amount of reintroductions, transplants, and even hybridization with domestic populations.

Regardless of lineage, the wild birds have been successful in appropriate habitats, to the point of becoming a nuisance in some urban areas.

The bird that attacked me on that summer day was undoubtedly watching over a nearby nest or brood of young. I had unwittingly ventured into its territory at a critical time which provoked a protective motherly response. She was aggressive in her defense and came at me repeatedly while I fended her off with my T-shirt. The whole encounter lasted perhaps 30 seconds, yet left me stunned.

To this day I laugh at the thought of it. Had there been anyone else watching, they would surely be laughing, too. Still, it makes for an interesting anecdotal story at the Thanksgiving table.

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