Recently, in honor of Turkey Day, I paid a visit to the Turkey Museum.
Actually, it's the Winchester Museum at the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield, and it is the only museum in the world "dedicated to the restoration, management and hunting of the wild turkey."
As recently as 1930, overhunting and habitat destruction had reduced the turkey population to a shocking 30,000 turkeys nationwide. Thanks to the efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation, in cooperation with other agencies, today there are 6.5 million wild turkeys in the U.S.
The Winchester Museum tells the story of the American Turkey and its miraculous comeback.
The many well-maintained dioramas at the museum show the five species of wild turkeys in their natural habitats. For many visitors who are used to the plump birds on our Thanksgiving table, the sight of the wild turkeys may be a shock. The wild turkey's domestic cousins have been bred to have such big breasts that they can no longer fly. Wild turkeys are sleeker, more alert, and far more agile. Although they cannot fly for great distances, they are built to escape predators and can reach speeds of 55 mph in flight.
The National Wild Turkey Federation's motto is "Conserve. Hunt. Share." The museum is dedicated not only to protecting the American turkey, but also to educating the public about responsible hunting of the birds. The Native American's relationship with the wild turkey - a reverence for the animal and a belief in taking only what is needed - is held up as something of a model for the modern hunter.
The school group that was visiting when I was there loved the last exhibit room and its hands-on displays. They were unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the video game that allowed them to try their hand at turkey hunting; they were also entranced by the chance to create their own loud gobbles with a turkey call box. Nearby there also is a fascinating display of wild turkeys with unusual genetic features like curled claws and albinism.
This time of year, with turkeys on our holiday plates, is a great time to learn a little bit more about the wild turkeys that made up our ancestors' Thanksgiving feasts. The Winchester Museum made me understand for the first time why Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be our country's national bird rather than the bald eagle. Like he said, the turkey is "...a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of America ... a Bird of Courage."
Thankfully, the National Wild Turkey Foundation and other like-minded agencies have made sure that wild turkeys will be around for many Thanksgivings to come.
Click here for more information about visiting the museum or on the efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation.