For most Floridians, a turkey dinner starts with a trip to the grocery store. But for some, the traditional Thanksgiving feast begins deep in the woods on a cool November morning.
Florida's resident wild turkey, the Osceola, is a particularly wary quarry prized by hunters, some of whom come from all over the world just to bag this legendary bird.
One of five U.S. species of wild turkey (the others being the Eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam and Gould's), the Osceola is found only in certain areas of the state, which makes it all the more challenging to hunt.
"These birds are not that smart," said Tony Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But they do have incredible eyesight and exceptional hearing. They see and hear you long before you see and hear them."
They're also really fast.
Perhaps the wild turkey's greatest survival mechanism is its uncanny sense that something is always out to get it.
"They are always on the lookout for things trying to eat them," Young explained. "Foxes, bobcats, coyotes … they love turkey. So they see anything moving and they high-tail it right out of there."
This is why turkey hunters have learned to blend in with the surroundings. Most are covered in camouflage from head to toe, and it is common for hunters to set up elaborate turkey blinds in which they sit motionless for hours on end.
"Turkey hunting is more interactive than other forms of hunting," said Young, who writes a column for the FWC called Outta' the Woods. "The best way to get a turkey to come close is to call them in."
By the dawn of the 20th century, U.S. wild turkey populations had been hunted to the brink of extinction. But in 1937, the wild turkey, the bird founding father Benjamin Franklin suggested as the national symbol instead of the bald eagle, got some relief through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.
A tax on guns and ammo helped pay for a variety of conservation and habitat protection programs, and wild turkeys began to recover. Today, there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in the United States, compared with a historic low of less than 30,000 during the Great Depression.
If you are fortunate enough to get a wild turkey for your table this Thanksgiving, don't treat it like the store-bought variety.
"These birds are lean," said Young. "If you are not careful, you can dry out the meat."
He advises deep frying, but like turkey hunting, this is a tricky process that requires close attention.
"The meat stays moist," Young said. "Deep-fried turkey … there's nothing like it."
Contact Terry Tomalin at email@example.com