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Prehistoric Thanksgiving


My nostalgia for Thanksgiving dinner extends this year to the Cretaceous Period. Yes, I’ll be feasting on dinosaur, or at least a cousin about 75 million years removed. Not Tyrannosaurus Rex or Stegosaurus or a Velociraptor—although I’m frightened to learn that the Velociraptor is pretty close. No, I’ll be sticking a fork in a cousin that’s been crapping all over my yard since June and eating my irises down to nubs.

Yes, I have turkeys; live ones. And if there were ever evidence that some of the little “terrible lizards” made it out alive after the Deep Impact of the Cretaceous–Tertiary (about 65 million years ago), these guys and gals are it.

Even when my dinosaurs were little—big enough to fit in the palm of your hand and make cute little peeping noises—there was a certain air of pending ugly about them. Their long necks and pointy heads were all covered in downy fuzz while their gangly legs gave them a certain spritely speed that would be long gone by the time they became young adults. Truly, it was their menacing feet that told the story early on. The scaly, three-toed claws could have been grafted from a T-Rex and, as they got older, this seemed the case even more so.

Turkeys are, according to scientists, distilled ancestors of walnut-brained dinosaurs—lucky survivors like the manatee, crocodile and John McCain. One look at them will tell you that. But the noises they make really give my yard a Jurassic Park feel.
Forget the “gobble, gobble, gobble” of the cartoons. Yes, they do that, especially when you make a noise—any noise—at them first. When someone would cheer a ringer in our summer games of horseshoes, there would be a chorus of gobbles from the turkeys on the other side of the house. (They were confined with a fence to fertilize only half the yard with their copious coprolites-in-waiting.)

But the noises at other times are just plain creepy. A vocal mix of barking and braying—a glottal screech of sorts—that sends crawling shivers up the back of my neck. It’s as if the vocalization resonated with a warning sequence in my DNA that was buried millions of years ago.

The Velociraptor is largely a myth created by the producers of Jurassic Park for use as a plot device (and comic relief with the dispatch of the loathed lawyer in the movie). But about four years ago, fossil hunters in Utah found bones of a “turkey-like dinosaur” that bears a striking resemblance to a modern-day turkey.

Labeled oviraptors, these gangly creatures were thought to have splayed tail feathers and wing-like protuberances like turkeys, only the “arms” were equipped with flesh rending claws that could do a julienne job on some prey that would make Ron Popeil blush. But what is truly fearsome about these long-dead creatures is that they stood seven feet tall; think a feathered Charles Barkley with serious speed, claws for hands and a beak that could part out a human in seconds. Kind of makes you wonder how modern day turkey hunters would fare against such prey today. Now THAT would be a hunting show I’d pay to watch.

I’m especially curious to see what my turkeys taste like. Unlike the assembly line Butterballs from the freezer section, mine have had lots of yard in which to roam and have gorged themselves on organic feed, scratch grains, grasshoppers and grapes (when I remember to get some at the store). In early November, they are going to Rocky Mountain Poultry Processing up in Nunn, Colorado where, for $9 a bird—and a two-day turnaround—they get plucked, cleaned, gutted and frozen.

It’s nice to know that, thanks to a chance encounter between the Earth and a big chunk of space debris, we humans are feasting on mini-oviraptors to celebrate Thanksgiving instead of the other way around. It gives us all a little something extra to be thankful for.

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