Wild, domestic turkey differences

Wild — Can fly more than a mile, sometimes at 55 mph.

Domestic — Lost ability to fly through selective breeding.

Wild — Slim, tall, long-legged.

Domestic — heavier, broader-breasted, short-legged.

Wild — Canny, keen-sighted, difficult to hunt.

Domestic — Easily taken from the supermarket cooler.

Source: S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The bird that will be heaped on the plate Thursday doesn’t much resemble the wild turkey. But that native flutters all through the woods around you, thanks to a remarkable comeback staged from a Lowcountry swamp.

And that’s a tasty little Thanksgiving tale.

The turkey was all but wiped out in the wild from overhunting when the S.C. Natural Resources Department in the 1940s trapped a few hundred behind a hog wire fence surrounding 17,000 acres in the Waterhorn-area swamps near McClellanville. The bottoms were so primeval and hard-to-access that the flocks had somewhat dodged hunters.

The birds were “one of the purest strains of wild turkey anywhere in the world,” according to Dave Baumann, of Bonneau, a retired Natural Resources supervisor who oversaw the wild turkey project.

Today more than 100,000 wild turkeys are estimated to gobble their way across all 46 counties in the state. Not so long ago it was rare to spot one. But dozens might be seen at a time in a turned cornfield in the spring.

The elegant gobblers have retaken the land and people’s imagination. The recovery, worked in part with the National Wild Turkey Federation, is considered a DNR milestone, so successful that other states ask for the “pure strain” birds to breed.

That domestic bird about to be carved up is a distant relation.

Native Americans domesticated turkeys long before Colonial times, said Charles Ruth, DNR turkey project supervisor. Spanish explorers took Mexican wild turkeys domesticated by the Aztecs home to Europe in about 1519. The novel meat quickly became a European and English rave, sought after for gourmet dinners, Ruth said.

American colonists brought the turkey with them, no doubt astonished to find the bird already here, plentiful and of a purer strain. Today’s domestic stock was crossbred with those turkeys, Ruth said.

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