By Michelle Werts

I have a confession to make: prior to this moment, I had never contemplated the history of the turkey. Shocking, I know! But, oh, have I learned a myriad of fascinating, charming and downright alarming things about Thanksgiving’s signature bird.

Wild turkey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Credit: John Benson (ibm4381)/Flickr

Wild turkeys are native to North America. Take that, Australia, and your adorable koalas. That’s right, we own the preeminent gobblers. In fact, there are five subspecies of wild turkey in North America — eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Gould’s — and between them, they range everywhere from the East Coast down to Florida and out to Colorado.

Now, before you start wondering if I’m really going to write a whole post about wild turkeys without talking about forests, fear not. Forests are vital to wild turkeys. Unlike my mental image of domestic turkeys mingling with chickens in the barnyard, wild turkeys make their nests amid woody vegetation to help conceal their locations. Not to mention, the fact that they use the trees to roost in at night and the forests as cover from their predators. Not surprisingly, America’s loss of forest cover over the years has not been welcomed by the turkey population.

When the pilgrims first arrived in America in the early 1600s, it’s estimated that almost half of the land that would become the United States was covered with forestland. Today, only a third of the U.S. is forested. By the early 1900s, habitat loss — and hunting for America’s favorite Thanksgiving treat — almost eradicated our country’s wild turkeys, with a population estimated to be only 30,000. For the last century, conservationists, turkey lovers, government officials — American presidents have been pardoning turkeys every Thanksgiving for the last 64 years — and others have been working to bring the turkey back from the brink, and they have. Seven million wild turkeys roam the countryside (and America’s cities and suburbs) today. And American Forests is working to ensure that these numbers stay strong. Through our partnership with Subaru “Share the Love,” we’ll be reforesting hundreds of acres of wild turkey habitat over the next year.

So give thanks this Thanksgiving season; wild turkeys are here to stay! Now, who wants to take up the campaign to have this majestic bird replace the bald eagle as our national bird? You’d be in good company: Benjamin Franklin supported the selection of the turkey over the eagle more than 200 years ago.