Contrary to our notions of a Thanksgiving feast, the first harvest celebrated by the Pilgrims with the Wampanoag in 1621 did not focus on roast turkey. According to the one preserved written account, the menu pivoted around duck, venison, seafood, and corn. Turkey only became part of the annual Thanksgiving ritual after 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday.
Writing in the text for The Birds of America (1827–38), the legendary naturalist-artist John James Audubon sided with Benjamin Franklin supporting the Wild Turkey—the bird that we today associate with the holiday of Thanksgiving—as a better choice for the national symbol than the Bald Eagle:
[S]uffer me, kind reader, to say how much I grieve that it [the Bald Eagle] should have been selected as the Emblem of my Country . . . The opinion of our great Franklin on this subject, as it perfectly coincides with my own. (Ornithological Biography, volume 1, page 168)
He proceeded to paraphrase one of the versions of Franklin’s letter from Paris to his daughter Sally Bache. The recent selection of the Eagle as the national symbol and the poor design of the bird on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati Medal—which Franklin noted looked more like a turkey—prompted the Philadelphia sage to humorously compare the two birds:
For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him. With all this injustice, he is never in good case, but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: the little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America, who have driven all the king birds from our country, though exactly fit for that order of knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie. (January 26, 1784, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 29)
Franklin also noted that the turkey is not only more respectable but also an original native bird of America, whereas eagles are found in every country. No wonder that the immigrant “American Woodsman,” as Audubon fashioned himself, assigned the Wild Turkey the place of honor as the first plate in The Birds of America. That engraving was based on his watercolor model—one of 435 for The Birds of America that the New-York Historical Society purchased from the artist’s widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, in 1863 and that have subsequently been deemed national treasures. It became perhaps Audubon’s most famous image.
Audubon, who became a proud U.S. citizen in 1812, so identified with America that he used “the gobbler” for his personal seal, engraved in reverse with the motto “AMERICA MY COUNTRY,” as well as for his visiting card. “The great size and beauty of the Wild Turkey, its value as a delicate and highly prized article of food,” wrote Audubon in the Ornithological Biography, “render it one of the most interesting of the birds indigenous to the United States of America.” On over 19 pages he described the species’ complex behavior, including its “love- season” and “amatory intercourse,” noting the fowl’s “purring,” “notes of exultation,” “gobbling,” and “clucking.”
In both his watercolor model and plate 1 of The Birds of America, Audubon’s majestic bird crowds the double-elephant-size paper, while the tips of its tail feathers are cropped to increase the illusion that it is striding forward through the cane, which grows on the riverbanks of the southeastern United States. The bird, which reputedly weighed 28 pounds, measured: “Length 4 feet 1 inch, extent of wings 5 feet 8 inches; beak 1 ½ inches along the ridge . . . Such were the dimensions of the individual represented in the plate, which, I need not say, was a fine specimen.” One of the people who witnessed the artist painting the watercolor commented, “Audubon . . . spent several days sketching it . . . till it rotted and stunk—I hated to lose so much good eating.” To convey the textures and tonalities of its plumage, Audubon lavished a wide spectrum of media on his depiction, including metallic pigment, most likely gold.
With the Wild Turkey as its focus, the New-York Historical Society’s intimate Audubon’s Birds of America Gallery takes flight on November 10. It offers visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience of viewing John James Audubon’s spectacular watercolor models for the 435 plates of The Birds of America with their corresponding plates from the double-elephant-folio series, engraved by master printmaker Robert Havell Jr. Other works from the collection—the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world—illuminate the artist’s creative process, and bird calls courtesy of Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology further animate the environment. In this inaugural exhibition, Audubon’s watercolor model will be joined by the copper plate used to print the Wild Turkey (held by the American Museum of Natural History) and the New-York Historical Society’s impression of plate 1 for The Birds of America. They will be reunited for the first time since 1827!
Why does Audubon’s life-size male turkey turn in contrapposto and look backwards? Was it only to allow the bird to fit onto the 40-inch-high paper? Five years before painting the male, the artist portrayed its mate sprinting with her nine poults (chicks) in tow. Therefore, Audubon’s male exhibits a characteristic species behavior as a pater familias, looking over his shoulder protectively at his family following behind. That this was Audubon’s intention is supported by no less than three oil paintings in which he portrayed the entire turkey family.
At times during Audubon’s stays in England to supervise the production of The Birds of America and to solicit subscribers, he was invited to dine in stately homes. Audubon dressed the part as the American Woodsman in buckskin attire, his long hair tamed with bear grease. Over port, he was frequently asked to produce turkey calls, owl hoots, and Indian war cries.
Conservation Status of the Wild Turkey
Heavily hunted since the earliest days of European occupation destroyed huge swaths of its range by logging and land clearing, Wild Turkeys reached a nadir in the early 1930s with a population of about 30,000 birds. Already Audubon had noted their declining numbers during his lifetime. Today, after a massive trap-and-transfer effort spanning over a quarter of a century, about seven million wild turkeys strut and gobble around the country. This inspiring story in the history of wildlife conservation involved the National Turkey Federation. While Wild Turkey numbers are stable, biologists in many southeastern states—a turkey stronghold—are concerned that populations have been tumbling, in some areas shrinking more than half with the quantity of poults dropping steeply. This suggests that there are underlying problems with their habitats that need attention.
Wild Turkeys on Long Island
Wild Turkeys and turkey rafts (one name for turkey groups) on Long Island have delighted me for many years and have taught me why Audubon painted the species in the poses he selected for plates 1 and 6 of The Birds of America. Turkey families are frequent guests to my house, and they have laid errant eggs on my patio and in my shrubs. Five years ago, walking down the driveway to the road, there was a male Wild Turkey in the grass on the right median which was turned in contrapposto gazing over his shoulder in the exact pose of the male in Audubon’s watercolor. His attention was riveted on his family trailing behind, and he proceeded to nod his head 21 times as his extended family members crossed the road to join him! In late August of this year, a turkey couple with their brood flew over the fence close to the house. In a case of nature imitating art, there were nine poults with mom in the running posture against a backdrop of foliage, just like Audubon painted his hen and chicks. When dad saw me, he proceeded to fan-open his magnificent tail feathers as in the photograph below. . . These 21st-century anecdotes about the Wild Turkey prove that Audubon was a nearly cinematic observer of avian behavior and lived up to his credo, which he frequently inscribed on his watercolors: “Drawn from Nature.”
—Roberta J.M. Olson, Curator of Drawings
See the newly renovated Audubon’s Birds of America Gallery on our second floor showcasing the Bird-of-the-Month, which you can also see updated monthly on our website.