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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Turkey – or dinosaur – for dinner?

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Illustration by Mike Jacobs2 / 2

This is Thanksgiving season and so the turkey must be bird of the week. No other bird is so closely associated with any day as the turkey. Nor is this the turkey's only distinction.

The turkey may be the closest living relative of the dinosaurs. In "The Wonder of Birds," Jim Robbins notes that in 1868, "Thomas Huxley, so fierce an adherent of the idea of natural selection that he was known as Darwin's bulldog, was eating dinner one evening while thinking about a dinosaur bone he had earlier been working with in the lab. As he nibbled on the bottom of a turkey drumstick, he was struck by its similarity to the anklebone of the dinosaur."

It took a century and a half for the idea to really take hold. The conclusion is not unanimous, but consensus among scientists is that the link is real. This only adds interest to a bird species that has always fascinated Americans.

The wild turkey is an American bird. It was well-known to native peoples who were quite willing to share. Turkeys from Mexico reached Europe in the 17th century. At about the same time, they appeared on New England tables set by the pilgrims, who learned about turkeys from local Indian people.

Benjamin Franklin, a New Englander and a noted collector of pioneer lore, held the wild turkey in high regard. The turkey is a "bird of courage," he said, and "a much more respectable bird" than the bald eagle, which he called a "rank coward." He didn't suggest that the turkey be the national emblem, however; his sentiments were shared in a letter with a friend nearly a decade after that decision was made.

Lewis and Clark watched for turkeys as they made their way up the Missouri River in 1804. They were familiar with wild turkeys, which were an important game bird on the Piedmont Plateau in Virginia, where they grew up. Turkeys recur in the journals until the expedition reached the mouth of the James River, where Yankton, S.D., is today. This is generally accepted as the northern edge of the turkey's range.

This wasn't the last encounter with turkeys on the outbound trip, however. On Oct. 4, when the explorers were near the current site of Pierre, S.D., an Indian man brought a turkey into their camp. The bird was dead. It may have been meant for a meal.

Dinner has been the fate of millions of turkeys, as many as 30 million this week alone. The turkey is traditional fare for Thanksgiving dinner, and has been for more than 300 years. Nor is turkey consumption limited to this holiday. Turkey is available in a wide variety of styles, from sandwich meat to sausage. Nor is turkey consumption restricted to North America. The turkey is the only American bird to become a commercial crop.

The National Turkey Federation, a growers' group, has presented a turkey to the president each Thanksgiving for nearly 70 years. By the 1980s, this tradition had taken a bizarre twist, the "presidential pardon."

Table turkeys don't much resemble the wild birds. From the color of their feathers to the breadth of their breasts, table turkeys are genetic modifications. Domestic turkeys are almost all white. The wild turkey is a breathtaking combination of iridescent colors. Domestic turkeys are broad-breasted; some can't stand. Wild turkeys are much leaner.

It's the breast bone that helped clinch the relationship between the turkey and the dinosaur. Technically termed the clavicle, this is the feature that we call the wishbone; eponym of one of the president's pardoned turkeys.

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