Throwback Thursday – Wild Turkeys

“Wild Turkeys,” 1923

Black and white photograph

Montauk Library Archives


Wild turkeys, once nearly extinct, have had a rebound, including in Montauk, as anyone who drives on “the new highway” in Montauk and spots them on the roadside will attest.

They were highly prized by Native Americans and European colonists alike, and formed the centerpiece of many special dinners, Thanksgiving or otherwise, beginning at least 400 years ago. They are intelligent and fleet of foot, and can fly, and they were difficult to hunt until net traps and shotguns brought them down more successfully, almost bringing about their demise.

Ben Franklin nominated the wild turkey instead of the bald eagle as the nation’s national bird; the wild turkey was considered a symbol of prosperity. They lack the white markings that domesticated turkeys sport on their tails. And unlike bald eagles, wild turkeys are vegetarians.

“The domestic fowl of today is but a pale copy of the magnificent lord of the forest, with its sheeny iridescence at breast feathers and the combs at its nook and head … It is true that the modern bird of November struts in ostentatious splendor and with a vanity that at times seems very nearly human,” said an account in the December 1, 1922, issue of The East Hampton Star, a year before this photograph was taken.

“Its display of the exultant passion of victory over rivals reminds one of a Wall Street boss of finance or a lady that is queen of the ball,” the story continues. While the males spend a lot of time strutting their stuff, the females guard their young ferociously, attacking humans and even faking injury to distract predators. Writing in 2003 about the successful reintroduction of wild turkeys to Hither Hills and other areas on eastern Long Island, Larry Penny, the “Nature Notes” columnist for the The East Hampton Star, noted that an acquaintance had been chased down the stairs by a wild turkey she had “hand-raised” but whose turkey wanted to protect her poults.

Hugh King, like Mr. Penny a fount of local information for whom we should be grateful – is the East Hampton Town Crier/Historian and East Hampton Village Historian. In the Montauk Library’s Archives, Mr. King is credited with having supplied this photo of wild turkeys in their typical grassland habitat in Montauk along with what seem to be a human mother and her daughter dressed very nicely for, perhaps, the Thanksgiving holiday. Mr. King said this week, however, that he does not remember contributing this photograph to the library’s Archival Collection. Does anyone have a clue about its provenance?

On the subject of collections: The Montauk Library is still taking donations for the Montauk Food Pantry. Here are details:

And finally, Happy Thanksgiving!


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