Millions of Americans are gathering for their annual Thanksgiving celebrations, a holiday linked by somewhat dubious tradition to a meal held in 1621 between British Pilgrims and the Wampanoag native Americans at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The Poms were doing it tough and were clearly thankful that their dinner companions brought enough deer and wild turkey to fuel a feast that lasted three days.
Although the event has been mythologised since then, a meal with turkey as its centrepiece has remained a core part of the Thanksgiving ritual. Turkey has worked its way into the heart of the Christmas tradition as well next month, many Australians will also lick their lips as one of these giant birds takes centre stage on the dinner table.
So why are Australians today eating the domesticated version of a North American bird?
It’s not as if there weren’t some obvious candidates among the native birds the first British settlers encountered when they came here. Aborigines had certainly been feasting on many species, from emu to pigeon, for a very long time and many an early colonial dinner featured parakeet pie.
Consider the Australian bustard, Ardeotis australis. It’s our heaviest flying bird, sometimes tipping the scales at up to 14 kilograms. It stands 120 centimetres tall and, although it mostly walks due to its great weight its two-metre wingspan makes it an awesome sight in flight.
Once common and abundant across much of mainland Australia, bustards would come together in huge numbers at breeding time when, as with the American wild turkey, the males would put on spectacular and noisy displays of feathered fancy. Near Hay, in southwestern New South Wales, one flock seen in 1897 was estimated to number about 1000 birds.
Like the American wild turkey, bagging one provided plenty of delicious meat for a hungry horde.
James Cook and his crew were among the first Europeans to discover this fact. When Endeavour was at the mouth of the Mary River, near Hervey Bay in Queensland, Joseph Banks records in his diary that they managed to shoot a bustard of 17 and a half pounds (about eight kilograms). Banks commented: ‘It was as large as a good turkey, and far the best we had eaten since we left England.’
It was soon so valued by early explorers that the word ‘bustard’ a Latin derivation, meaning slow-moving became a landmark in Queensland, with place names like Bustard Head and Bustard Bay.
Given the palatability of the bird, why did Australians begin to lose interest in bustards and refocus instead on importing American turkeys yet another introduced species that could potentially harm Australia? Why didn’t they build an industry around sustainably harvesting, and in the process conserving, a valued Australian bird? Our guess is that native foods were increasingly seen as ‘poor man’s tucker’ and as such were gradually removed from Australian cookbooks.
As the land was cleared and replaced by monocultures of introduced grazing species, and predatory foxes and cats spread their claws and teeth across the landscape, bustard numbers fell. They plunged even further when rabbit bait was spread throughout their habitat. As the grazing stock numbers increased, they reduced the ground cover available to bustards. Their habit of laying their eggs on the ground made them especially vulnerable. As a result, they are now listed as threatened by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Despite these trials and tribulations, there is still no recovery plan for the species.
The Australian bustard. Image from Australian Wildlife Conservancy
Bustards all over the world have suffered similarly: in Britain, they are painstakingly reintroducing bustards imported from Russia onto the Salisbury Plains. In the Middle East, breeding programs are under way to counter over-hunting of bustards by falconers.
In North America, the wild turkey went through a parallel decline. The Pilgrims thanked them to death, with the last wild bird being killed in Massachusetts 1851. Within a century, they were so rare that most Americans had never seen one.
Today, however, through the efforts of enthusiasts, hunters and State wildlife agencies, wild turkeys are thriving again throughout much of their original geographic range and are being maintained through investment in regulated hunting, which fosters their maintenance through habitat protection.
While many strategies for conserving the Australian bustard could and should be put in place, we shouldn’t ignore potential gains that could result from a trial of sustainably harvesting surplus individuals in an area managed to maximise their viability.
Given that the World Conservation Union has recommended that sustainably harvesting wild populations can have very significant conservation outcomes such as it has in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa it would seem a reasonable strategy to trial alongside all others that could help this wonderful bird to survive into the future.
Sustainable harvesting worked for many thousands of years when practised by Indigenous hunters long before Western strategies brought this species to its knees. Its decline is a sadness and concern to many Aboriginal communities in central and northern Australia, for whom ‘bush turkey’ continues to be an important food and cultural resource.
Domestication of the North American wild turkey has ensured that that species or at least the bulk of its genetic heritage will continue indefinitely. Likewise the chicken, which began its domesticated life several thousand years ago in the forests of Vietnam as the wild Asian jungle fowl.
The contrast between the current status of the bustard and the chicken in Australia is stark: the former is struggling to survive and in decline, the latter is the continent’s most numerous bird. Indeed, the chicken is now thought to be the world’s most numerous bird, all eight billion of them.
The message from bustards and turkeys and chickens is that what humans value they tend to conserve. It’s time to attribute a new set of values to the bustard, and the same is clearly true of many other overlooked and underused native plant and animal species.
Many greenies struggle with the concept of conservation through sustainable use: after all, it seems counter-intuitive to kill something in order to save it. Since perception is reality, marketing then becomes as significant as production, as the kangaroo industry has found.
It’s one thing to begin sustainably harvesting or hunting bustards; it’s another to convince Australians to buy the product, even if they know that by doing so they are improving the survival prospects for the species.
What could you say to get Australians to try sustainably harvested bustards? How about the direct approach: ‘Forget the turkey; eat the bustard!’
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