The bird has long occupied a place in Americans' hearts (and stomachs). But the national population quickly dwindled after the Pilgrims' memorable meal. In Missouri, there were only 600 wild turkeys left in the 1950s when the state took action. In just five years the population was stable. Now the state boasts 370,000 birds.
At 4.2 million strong, the game bird ranges from Mexico to Ontario and inhabits every state but Alaska.
Exceptional adaptability, says Mary Kennamer of the National Wild Turkey Federation, is a main reason for its comeback from a population of 20,000 to 30,000 in 1900.
The wild turkey's adaptability is based on several unique characteristics, says Floyd Ficken, a wildlife biologist in St. Louis. These include its large size (males can reach 25 pounds.) and keen sight and hearing. Also, poults can fly a mere 10 days after hatching, and a hen will nest a second time if the first is destroyed.
But have the fan-tailed fowl fully recovered their pre-Pilgrim population? Actually, a little civilization has done wonders for the bird. Open ground provides it a steady diet of insects, and waste grain helps it through the winter. Pre-Thanksgiving stats aren't available, but "there is no doubt the number of turkeys now is greater than before settlement," says Mr. Ficken.