The wild turkey is a klutzy-looking thing, but don’t be fooled; it can run almost as fast as a human and can fly up to fifty-five miles per hour. No wonder, then, that the bird has been around a long time: fossils have been found that are more than five million years old.

Turkeys were domesticated at least as far back as the Aztecs. Native Americans have long admired the turkey’s looks, or at least its feathers, which are used for headdresses and capes. The Lenape, Shawnee, and Seminoles are among the native peoples who have turkey dances.

The wild turkey also cuts a large figure (so to speak) in U.S. history and stories. But while elementary school classes still draw turkeys at Thanksgiving time, how big a role, if any, the turkey played in the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 is an open question (the History Channel states flatly that it was not on the menu at all). The bird became established as the meal’s centerpiece only in the nineteenth century.

The National Wild Turkey Federation also debunks the common belief that Benjamin Franklin proposed the wild turkey rather than the bald eagle as the national bird, saying Franklin had nothing to do with the selection process. Nevertheless, he clearly preferred the turkey to the eagle. In a letter he wrote to his daughter in 1784, he commented:

“… For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison [to the Bald Eagle] a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original native of America … He is (though a little vain & silly …), 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.”

Like the bald eagle, the wild turkey almost went extinct, and like the bald eagle it has rebounded with substantial assistance from humans. The birds are now found in every state but Alaska and Hawaii and are second only to deer in popularity as a game animal.

In December 2013, the Observer reported a “meteoric” rise in the number of turkeys seen in the Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count–from none at all prior to 1989 to forty-three in 2012. Even so, it took more than forty-three birders to find them. In our neighborhood (around Scio Church Rd. west of Zeeb) we can expect them to show up about a dozen times a year in the spring or fall. Sometimes they’re crossing the road or alongside it but they’re mostly in farmers’ fields after the corn has been harvested or before it is up. Our local birds are eastern wild turkeys. (We have seen Rio Grande wild turkeys in South Texas; there are several subspecies.)

Dea Armstrong, Ann Arbor’s city ornithologist, emails that chances of seeing or hearing a wild turkey are about 50-50 if one drives around the western part of the county in the early morning. If you seek them out this month, though, you may want to stay safely in your car: turkey-hunting season continues through November 14, followed immediately by the firearm deer season.

Closer to home, turkeys have been reported around the city’s Materials Recovery Facility on Platt south of Ellsworth, and the farm fields nearby. And last winter, a “rafter” of them hung around the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus, apparently drawn by heat leaking from the building.

The wild turkey who graciously posed for us this month will grace no Thanksgiving table this year or in any year to come. Our model is a permanent resident at the Creature Conservancy at 4940 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. Happy Thanksgiving.