I get really excited for Thanksgiving. On top of the joy for a day off of work, we get to indulge in a morning hike at Fremont Older, then I get to really indulge in one of my favorite pastimes – cooking. The day is filled with comfort food. Who can resist mushroom stuffing with extra sage, yams with bubbly, caramelized sugar on top, tart and tangy cranberry sauce, and the deep rich taste of brussel sprouts with bacon? It’s all made fresh at our house, and everyone pitches in. This year, the kids will decorate the table with pine cone place markers and fresh herbs from the garden, and we have family driving hundreds of miles to celebrate with us. Then after dinner, we’ll sit back and enjoy the silly antics in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” before breaking out the decorations for the later Winter holidays.
I asked my kids what they wanted for Thanksgiving Dinner. We are a very mindful family about what we eat, keeping meals healthy and fresh, and usually moderating portions. But for Thanksgiving, there is no such thing as moderation. At the top of everyone’s list was a turkey, and my husband implored me to order a fresh one from a local farm, this year. I’ve never had a bad turkey, but buying frozen turkey “bowling balls” has caused some stress before. One year, I waited too long before buying our bird, and there was quite a bit of anxiety as I wondered if the bird would defrost enough to cook through. That year, it stayed in the oven an extra two hours, and I feared we would be having the National Lampoon’s turkey – a ball of gas surrounded by turkey jerky.
My husband has tried hunting for grouse, quail, pheasant, or turkey for our dinner, as well. One year, waiting for this unknown prize posed its own anxiety. I’ve heard that wild turkeys are much leaner and so don’t cook up as well as your typically Butterball. And while we roast a whole chicken about once every two weeks, so I am fluent with the general process, new birds are often handled in slightly different ways. We cooked duck once, and I was taken with how differently it cooked, based on its higher fat content. Game meats are often more lean, so cook much denser and can be dry. Cooking up his last prize from hunting – rabbit – revealed this to be true, but we enjoyed it anyhow.
Ducks and turkeys are the only two popular domestic species of birds you can buy that are native to America (chickens were imported from India long ago). Part of their popularity certainly has to do with how easygoing they are. Turkeys eat just about anything, and do a nice job “cleaning” up nature. They eat bugs, slugs, nuts, seeds, and berries, and can even hull grasses with their beaks. You’ll see them in the grasslands, where their 3 to 4 foot height can make them more visible, but the birds prefer wooded regions, often retreating to the branches of trees at night, or nesting at the trunks of low-growing trees.
I hope you have had the pleasure of seeing turkeys at the wide range of open spaces all over the Bay Area. I recall seeing my first wild Californian turkey in Henry Coe Park (Morgan Hill) while Andrew and I were backpacking in 1999. We actually heard him first – a male hollering very loudly for a mate in the spring. He fanned out his tail and puffed out his chest, squawked dozens of telltale “gobbles,” and kept walking about our camping area for a while, before finally continuing on his way.
Turkeys were a populous wild animal well into the 1900s, until their populations were decimated by hunting and pressure from construction and pollution. The federal government worked hard to reintroduce them in the 1940s. Since the 1960s, the turkey populations in the US, Canada, and Mexico have thrived. You can find turkeys in almost all states in America (Alaska is too cold), and wild turkeys in the US account for about 89 percent of the 7.8 million turkeys worldwide.
Turkey behavior is fascinating – I did a little research and will look for some of the following patterns when we next see a flock. Grown males group together away from females, establishing their own “pecking order,” with alpha males that change, I am guessing based on tail displays, outcomes of fights, and other violent encounters. Females often group with their little poults (babies) and other female-led families of poults. Within this social circle the females have their own “pecking order” as well. The males are considerably more colorful than females, and fan out their tales as a means of defense or to attract females, much like a relative, the peacock, does. That big wide tail is also helpful for swimming – apparently the birds spread their tails in water, to create more surface area so they don’t sink, then motor across the water by kicking their legs. Sounds just like a swimmer using a kick board!
The turkeys you can buy at the store are the domestic kind, which are related to wild turkeys, but bred for size and flavor. They look different too, with a white tip to their tails instead of a chestnut brown one, and I would bet some of the usual behaviors of male-flocking and female-flocking are not maintained in domestic life, where they are likely spoiled with ready food and nesting areas.
We hope you can join us for a hike up at Fremont Older (Saratoga/Cupertino) on Thanksgiving, but if not with us, Turkey Trots abound, and Santa Clara Open Space is offering a neat “Hike Your Pie Off” hike on Saturday, which Stroller Hikes is promoting. We’ll hike up to Coyote Point, a beautiful viewpoint looking out over San Jose, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, and more, sometimes with views all the way up to San Francisco and Oakland. We’ll be done with plenty of time to get turkey dinners started, assuming of course that you don’t have to stress about a frozen bowling ball of a bird.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving feast as well – Gobble, gobble!
– Debbie (President and Founder), Max (7), Holly (3), and Andrew