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Turkeys. Zimmerman photo  

If you're willing to spend a week, with a 1.3% chance of success, try fall archery hunting for the wary Wild Turkey. More...

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- by E. A. Zimmerman

Riddle:  What key has legs and can’t open a door?  Answer:  A turkey.

Heritage turkeys.  Zimmerman photo.
Heritage turkey breeds can mate naturally, are hardier, genetically diverse (which makes them less likely to be wiped out by disease), grow more slowly, and are more flavorful than the white Broad-Breasted Turkey. Photo at Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm by Bet Zimmerman.

In a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the native wild turkey, though a little vain, would be a more majestic symbol of the Country than the carrion-eating Bald Eagle.  But by the early 1800’s, Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) had disappeared from Connecticut.  Causes included unregulated hunting, a series of severe winters, and loss of forest habitat when land was clear cut for farming. 

In 1975, after forest land recovered, the CT Dept. of Environmental Protection started reintroducing turkeys.  Wild birds were trapped in NY (and later in CT) in baited areas, using special nets fired by rockets from a remote blind.  Just 356 birds released in 18 locations over a 17 year period have blossomed into a population numbering more than 30,000. (Domestic turkeys should never be released into the wild.  Birds raised in captivity lack a survival instinct, are less hardy, and can host diseases that could spread to the wild population.)

Today, wild turkeys roam all 169 CT towns.  My neighbor counted at least 78 crossing Fabyan Road in Woodstock, CT one snowy afternoon.  Turkey hunting has been allowed in CT since 1981, but it isn’t easy.  Wild turkeys are wary, and have excellent eye sight and hearing.  Despite their bulk, they can run up to 25 mph and fly 55 mph.  Each year, thousands of hunters get turkey permits, but their success rate ranges from about 1.3% (fall archery) to 20% (spring hunting on private land).  Hunters typically spend 17-37 hours hunting to get one bird. By the way, Woodstock is THE turkey hunting hotspot in CT, based on the number of birds harvested. (Source: CT DEP).  

Most traditional Thanksgiving meals include a turkey.  About 99.9% of supermarket turkeys are Broad Breasted White Turkeys.   This breed has been selectively engineered since the 1920’s to have lots of breast meat and grow quickly, which keeps costs down.  Because their feathers are white, pin feathers are not visible on a cooked bird.  But since their breast bones and legs are so short, they are unable to mate naturally and must be artificially inseminated to reproduce.  Upper beaks are clipped to prevent cannibalism.  Old fashioned “Heritage” breeds are becoming increasingly popular.  They grow more slowly, but have more dark meat and a moist, rich flavor.    

A wild turkey male can get up to 15-25 lbs.  One pasture-raised turkey from the Hermonot’s Ekonk Hill Turkey Farm in Sterling, CT weighed in at 49 lbs.  The Hermonots started raising turkeys for family and friends in 1998. They now produce about 1,700 birds a year.  (They also make their own deliciously rich ice cream which I felt obligated to sample during our visit.)  Locavores who want to dine on locally grown fowl can order a bird from Ekonk.  Expect to pay more for a fresh, free-range bird ($3.49/lb for Broad-breasted, $6.49/lb. for Heritage at Ekonk), but customers say they are worth every penny.  Cook fresh turkeys for 15-16 minutes per pound (vs. 20 minutes for frozen) in a 325 degree oven.  In keeping with the local theme, you might want to wash your meal down with a tasty beverage from one of CT’s 24 wineries.

Let’s Talk Turkey:  Poults are turkey chicks up to 6 mos. old, gobblers or toms are male wild turkeys,  jakes are toms less than 1 year old, hens are females (about 10% are bearded hens), and a jenny  is a hen less than 1 year old.  Mimicking turkey calls is an art, and there are entire books written on the subject.

Bedevilled Rabbit, Warner Bros. - watch cartoon with Wild Turkey Surprise
Originally published in the Villager newspapers on November 21, 2008

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Last updated October 25, 2016

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