Eight Wild Animal Species the Pilgrims Ate—and How They Are Today

from Wildlife Promise


The Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving celebration (which lasted three days) probably took place in mid October 1621, after an unexpectedly bountiful harvest. The newcomers invited local Indians—who had given them a lot of useful advice on farming—to join them. According to various sources, the Pilgrims enjoyed a wide range of wild animal foods collected from forest, meadow and sea. Those species continued as staple foods in America for at least another 250 years. But how do the creatures on which the Pilgrims dined fare today?

wild turkey, pilgrims, wild food, thanksgiving

A wild turkey almost glows with bronze iridescence in this photo by Sonya L. Shaw.

Let’s take a look at eight types of wild creatures the Pilgrims ate:

Turkey

A large bird of woods and plain, the turkey was common across much of the area we know today as the United States. The Pilgrims and their Indian allies probably had access to roosts where dozens, even scores, of turkeys bunched up at night. Easy prey for arrow or bullet. Too easy, because within the next 300 years the turkey was nearly wiped out across much of the United States. Massive efforts were undertaken in the 1930s and onward to restore wild turkey populations, which today are common in most states and legal to hunt in season.

Heath Hen

This grouse was so common in the Plymouth area that the birds in later years became a staple diet for servants, being easy to get and cheap. Given that the birds flocked in open areas—scrubby heath barrens—they almost certainly were the species sometimes called partridges in accounts of the Pilgrim celebration. Heavily hunted throughout the colonial period and in the 19th century, and subject to habitat loss, the bird was extinct on the mainland by no later than 1870. The last of them disappeared on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932.

Waterfowl

Ducks, geese and swans were all on the Pilgrims’ table. The birds suffered greatly during the uncontrolled market-hunting years of the 1800s. One species, the Labrador duck, became extinct in the mid 1870s, probably because of egg collecting (it wasn’t favored for its unpalatable meat) and loss of the clam beds in which it found winter food. Drought in the early 1900s hurt waterfowl across the nation. But conservationists in the 1930s set to work helping the birds recover, often with the leadership of J.N. “Ding” Darling, the founder of the National Wildlife Federation. Today, waterfowl populations are carefully managed and hunting is controlled. Waterfowl numbers still have ups and downs, but they are unlikely to join the heath hen in oblivion.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle - NWF/John C MoerkYes, the Pilgrims apparently served eagle during the celebration. In the mid 1900s, the use of pesticides nearly put the bald eagle and many of its relatives, from peregrines to condors, out of business. In the Lower 48 States, fewer than 500 bald eagle pairs survived in 1960. Now, almost 10,000 pairs live in the Lower 48, thanks to regulation of DDT and other pesticides, as well as a ban that NWF helped initiate on lead shot, which poisoned the birds when they scavenged waterfowl shot and lost by hunters.

Lobsters

Lobster populations as a rule remain safe, and the animals are still common on American dinner plates. These crustaceans are carefully managed by both state and federal agencies, and restrictions are based on increasingly refined data.

Atlantic Cod

Caught off New England, the fish that was so common and commercially important that it gave its name to a Massachusetts cape has not done so well. In the 1990s, the catch of cod was sinking fast because of overharvest by the fishing industry. Today, federal regulations are helping to restore the battered cod populations, though numbers are still down. However, catch data suggest that improvements are on the way, though the species still suffers the effects of overfishing.

Eel

These slippery, slender fish were once common in New England rivers, where they matured before returning to the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic, a warm-water area where eels breed and hatch. Overfishing and damming of streams has greatly reduced eel populations in the Northeast. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned down a petition to protect eels under the Endangered Species Act.

White-Tailed Deer

Venison was also on the 1621 menu. In the 1800s, deer in many states were nearly wiped out by uncontrolled hunting for meat and hides and by loss of habitat as forests were cut. But in the 1900s, wildlife managers began developing more scientific methods for monitoring and managing deer, which began to rebound as forests grew back. Today, deer may be as populous as they were in 1621.

Bonus Species

It’s not a meat species, being a tree, but let’s look at one last item on the Pilgrims’ plates—chestnuts. When the first colonists arrived in North America, the American chestnut tree ranged across New England and much of the region east of the Mississippi, with the exception of most of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and the southeastern coastal states.

About 25 percent of all trees in the Appalachia Mountains were American Chestnuts, which grew up to 150 feet tall. They provided food for myriad animals as well as for humans. In 1904, chestnut trees in what is now the Bronx Zoo began dying. The cause: a bark fungus inadvertently bought into the United States on Asian chestnut trees.

The Asian trees could withstand the fungus, but the American trees could not. Perhaps 3 billion American chestnut trees died as a result. Today, probably fewer than 100 large chestnut trees survive in the species’ original range. Trees still sprout from old root systems, but these trees rarely grow more than 20 feet tall before the bark fungus kills them. Efforts are under way to recover the species and return it to its former range.

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