How did the turkey become the bird ambassador of thankfulness?
Admittedly it’s not the first thing you would think of, to look at one. While recognizing that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I’d still wager that, for most people, a turkey does not rate highly on the scale of bird attractiveness. The only people that I’ve personally known to say “That’s a beautiful bird” have been my friends who are turkey hunters. They say this after they’ve shot one. That doesn’t count.
Taking a good look at a turkey— wild or domesticated— is more likely to evoke giggles than awe. From its gangly legs all the way up to its featherless red-and-blue head, its features are odd enough for us to sometimes forget it’s even a bird. When the male literally inflates its body, it’s reminiscent of a basketball. My various field guides use descriptors that—if applied to humans—would hardly be compliments. Spherical. Wattled. Naked head. Fleshy protuberance. Over the beak sits a long fleshy growth called a snood, that dangles roguishly to one side, obscuring the beak and surely getting in the way at feeding time. The snood seems to belong more on the pages of Dr. Seuss than on the face of an actual bird.
And let’s not forget that gobble. It’s perhaps the most recognizable call in the bird world, but not for its virtuosity. Instead it’s been described as a “throaty jumble” or a “shrill gurgle.” Don’t use these phrases to describe your spouse’s singing voice.
It’s simply hard to categorize a turkey. Their very name admits this. Spanish explorers discovered domesticated turkeys in Mexico in 1519 and brought them back to the Old World. Soon all over Europe, turkeys were trending. As they found their way to England, they were dubbed “turkeys” because of their resemblance to turkey-fowls from the Ottoman Empire. Their new name, sadly, placed them on the wrong continent. Confusing? Wait, it gets better. The Turkish word for the bird is hindi, which means “Indian", an origin that the French and Italians also espouse (the original French word coq d’Inde, now shortened to just dinde, translates as “rooster of India”). This is probably a holdout from the early misconceptions that the New World was really India. And to add to the confusion, in India they call the bird "Peru", borrowing for some reason from the Portuguese name. So to summarize, the English call it Turkey, the Turks call it India, and in India they call it Peru. Oh, and for what it's worth, in Malay it’s a “Dutch chicken.” Perhaps all of this intercontinental nomenclature only adds to the turkey’s awareness that no one truly understands him.
I know I’m being hard on the turkey, but first impressions aren’t always accurate ones. There’s an unspeakable majesty here as well. How can a creature somehow be strange and spectacular at the same time?
Benjamin Franklin was one who saw this awkward grandeur. It’s often said that Franklin had nominated the Wild Turkey as America’s national bird. That’s not entirely true, but the rumor stems from a private letter to his daughter Sarah Bache in 1784, where he lamented the choice of the Bald Eagle as a bird of “bad moral character” who “does not get his living honestly”, often poaching fish from other raptors. He went on to call the eagle a “rank coward” for fleeing the aggressions of much smaller birds. But then Franklin takes a moment by contrast to wax eloquent on the turkey:
“For in truth, the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America. Eagles have been found in all countries, but the turkey was peculiar to ours… He is besides, (though a little vain and silly ’tis true, but not the worse emblem for that) a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”
Could this odd combination of clumsy-and-courage be a picture of thankfulness for us? Could a live turkey—not just the cooked and basted type—evoke in us a gratitude for awkward grace?
God seems to delight in juxtaposing the strange and the spectacular. He reminded Job of another example of avian awkwardness:
“The wings of the ostrich flap joyfully, though they cannot compare with the wings and feathers of the stork… Yet when she spreads her feathers to run, she laughs at horse and rider.” (Job 39:13 & 18)
Some birds, I’m convinced, God created simply to make us laugh. Not the laugh of ridicule or disdain, but of joyous mirth. Watch a Brown Pelican cruising low above both surf and gravity itself with hardly a wing flap, and then watch that same pelican attempt his undignified spastic landing. Watch a Reddish Egret perched with picture-perfect graceful tenseness as he eyes a fish, and then watch that same egret launch himself after his quarry like a drunken bum stumbling out of the bar at closing time.
Where’s the laughter and thankfulness in these contrasts? Simply in the fact that we see ourselves in them. We are a contrast of beauty and brokenness, of dignity and depravity: dignity as those made in God’s image, and depravity as those whose image has been shattered. The image is beautiful, but sometimes you have to squint to see it through the shards.
Like the presidential turkey, we need a pardon. Thankfully the gospel gives that pardon. By faith, we experience a no-condemnation acceptance from a savior who sees underneath all our wattles and snoods.
Perhaps my favorite verse—the one I find myself referencing the most for myself and others—is 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. Paul receives this comfort from Jesus in the midst of the thorns of physical weakness: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That weakness becomes Paul’s boast and strength.
In the year ahead, we’ll still flounder like a pelican, stumble like an egret, and gobble our throaty jumble. But there’s grace for our daily awkwardness. And along the way, the Lord is rebuilding and perfecting that broken image in us, until the day when even the most awkward aspects of our being will depict a dancer’s gracefulness. We will laugh at our weakness to glory in his strength.
This Thanksgiving, let’s thank the Lord for his grace to bestow beauty to our awkwardness, to endure with us through all our chest-inflating pride and foolish gobbling, and to receive our imperfect gratitude.
And yes, turkeys also taste good. Thank God for that too.