Turkeys have been in the Americas for a very long time.
Fossil records show they were around 11 million years ago and were likely distributed continuously from middle latitudes of North America to northern South America during the Pleistocene Era.
The Aztec Indians were the first to domesticate the bird, and it became an important staple to their diet. The Navajo gave up on keeping the hungry birds away from their scanty desert corn crops, and instead began to feed the turkeys and fence them in. The invading turkeys unwittingly provided a dependable source of protein and ornamental feathers.
Nomadic Indians of the northeast did not bother to domesticate the turkey, since it enjoyed the abundant vegetation and thrived without agricultural welfare. The wild birds were “called up” by imitating their calls, and then grabbed by a child hiding behind some logs or in a pit, or shot with a bow and arrow or blow gun.
In 1519, Cortez and his fellow Spanish Conquistadors found the Aztecs raising turkeys around their homes. They took the domesticated birds back to Europe where they became a popular meat producing livestock.
In 1620, the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower and began to search for sources of food. They met up with Northeastern Native Americans, who shared their knowledge of hunting the large fowl. The delicious meat of the wild turkey was an important and an abundant food supply for both Indians and settlers.
As pioneers pushed west and cut and cleared forests, the turkey’s habitat changed and their numbers dwindled. In the late 1700s, turkeys were harvested without restraint and marketed in big cities for consumption. By the mid-1800s the Civil War brought a shortage of food and the big bird had been eliminated from nearly half of its original range. In the early 1900s, only around 30,000 turkeys remained.
But around 1920, things began to improve. Millions of acres cleared by pioneers began to regenerate into woodlands. Farsighted leaders began enacting conservation laws and restocking programs began. In 1994, almost all of the forests of the eastern United States and much of the west had been restocked. Today, some 5 million big birds roam 49 states.
Information for this article came from www.wildturkeyzone.com. Steve Roark is the Area Forester in Tazewell, Tenn. for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.