Every Gun Was Aimed At Them: The Wild Turkey in America

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

“Thus, we see how essential the wild turkey was to the explorer, how prominent a part of the larder it proved for the early pioneers and Indians, what sport it furnished our natives, settlers and foreign sportsmen, and how early it was singled out as our token of festival joy.” – Albert Hazen Wright, “Early Records of the Wild Turkey,” 1914.

The Wild Turkey Hunter

While it is fair to say that turkeys were not treated particularly well by Native Americans, a worse fate awaited them under the European invaders and their descendants, who conducted a full-scale assault upon the birds. A Civil War-era photograph published by the National Wild Turkey Federation tells much of the story of what happened to the wild turkey in America. It depicts rows of dead turkeys strung upside down like clothes on a clothesline at an army campsite. This was the fate of the birds over and over under the assaults of the military camps.

Men slaughtered cartloads full of turkeys, shooting them at roost when they were sleeping and defenseless. Fifty to five hundred birds per hunting party in a single night were boasted, with an uncounted number of cripples left to die in the aftermath. Someone joked that whenever the people of Colorado City wanted wild turkeys, “they hitched a team to a wagon, drove to some stream where there was timber, ran the wagon under the turkey roost, and fired,” leaving all of the birds who were wounded but not dead beside the wagon.

What the naturalist John Muir wrote of the passenger pigeon in the 19th century was no less true of the turkey: “Every shotgun was aimed at them.” When a man saw a turkey or a flock of turkeys, he got his gun. Even if he found the turkeys engaging, he still killed them all if he could, or took a few potshots at the flock. Foreign visitors brought their guns, too. They had their muskets ready “to shoot the wild geese and turkeys” and were “always on the watch for an opportunity of practicing on shipboard, believing that they should have such excellent sport in America shooting wild turkies.”

Whole American communities gunned down turkeys and prairie chickens for eating the grain. In Ohio, people used clubs to drive turkeys from the wheat fields. Circular hunts were organized to exterminate “these famous birds of the forest” because they ate the corn. A person who grew up in Illinois wrote in 1937, “One of my earliest and most vivid recollections was of the day when everybody combined to slaughter the last immense flock of Wild Turkeys. They enticed so many tame Turkeys away and were so destructive to the crops, that their extermination was decreed by the grange, churches, and the general public.”

From “The True Original Native of America” in More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality by Karen Davis, PhD. Order from UPC by regular mail or through our website at www.upc-online.org/merchandise/book.html. $14.95 includes shipping.

Clear Fork Ranch Turkey Hubnt
Every Gun Still Aimed At Them: 2018 Clear Fork Ranch Spring Turkey Hunt

More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality

Author Karen Davis takes us back to European folklore about turkeys, the myths, fairytales, and downright lies told about turkeys and their habits and habitats. She shows how turkeys in the wild have complex lives and family units, and how they were an integral part of Native American and continental cultures and landscape before the Europeans arrived. And much more!

 More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality

Karen Davis, PhD
More than a Meal
The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality
New York: Lantern Books
$14.95 paperback
(includes shipping)

“An eloquent and well-informed plea for us to change exploitation into respect. Not only is More Than a Meal an excellent account of the history of hunting, farming, and killing of the turkey, but it is a penetrating examination of the culture of Thanksgiving, in which the turkey plays a central and demeaning role.”

--Lesley Rogers, Professor of Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour,
University of New England

“Karen Davis shines a new light on the unfortunate, much maligned bird that is the center of America’s Thanksgiving ritual, and thereby illuminates the lies and hypocrisy that surround our eating habits and our attitudes to animals. More Than a Meal challenges all Americans to think about the values that they want their annual family ritual to embody.”

--Peter Singer, DeCamp Professor of Bioethics,
Princeton University
“A thought-provoking book because we are taken on a journey to look at the unsightly corners of our attitudes and practices of past and present. . . . Can we read this rousing book without wishing to improve the lot of these magnificent birds?”
--Gisela Kaplan, Full Professor, School of Biological Sciences,
University of New England
“Serious but engaging. My advice to anyone who thinks that turkeys are stupid, unappealing birds would be to read this book.”
--Ian J.H. Duncan, Professor of Poultry Ethology, Chair in Animal Welfare,
University of Guelph, Ontario