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The First Thanksgiving Bird, Turkeys or Swans? We Will Never Know for Sure.

Dear Bird Folks,

A friend of mine claims that turkeys weren’t eaten on the first Thanksgiving. Instead, according to my friend, the Pilgrims had stuffed swans on their dinner table. Is he right? –Martin, Holden, MA


wasn’t there, Martin,

I know you probably think I’m so old that I could have attended the first Thanksgiving, but I wasn’t there. Okay, fine, I was there but I wasn’t at the meal. I had to work that day and missed the entire feast. I was put in charge of the Plymouth Colony’s new birding shop and couldn’t get time off. I had to settle for warmed-up leftovers when I got home. And what kind of leftovers does a vegetarian colonist get? A yummy squash sandwich, of course. If there were any swans or turkeys being eaten, I didn’t see them. But it’s hard to notice anything else when there’s a yummy squash sandwich on your plate.

The truth is, no one knows what was actually eaten on that day, 391 years ago. There are no remaining hard copies of the menu. Apparently, the day’s menu was posted on a dry erase board and it was accidently erased when an overweight John Alden brushed past it. As a result, we can only guess at what was eaten. Historians seem pretty confident that there was a lot of venison, as well as shellfish, including lobster. Governor Bradford’s wife, Rachel Ray Bradford, reportedly made a Lobster Newburg that was so delish Chief Massasoit traded her some wampum for the recipe.

Wild Turkeys were common game birds back in 1621, so it stands to reason that a few of them found their way to the dinner table, but no one can prove it. Waterfowl were also extremely common in those days and as your friend said, there are several accounts suggesting swan was also served. Unfortunately, there is no proof. The only piece of evidence that remains is a gravy stain on Myles Standish’s puffy shirt. But since turkey gravy and swan gravy are nearly identical, we might never know the truth.

If swans were actually on the menu, I can tell you right now they weren’t those jumbo Mute Swans that have been floating around New England for the last few decades. Those invasive birds weren’t introduced to North America until the late 1800s. The swans roasted on that day were most likely Tundra Swans. Tundra Swans are rare around here now, but four hundred years ago that wasn’t the case. This used to be one of their favorite wintering haunts, but there’s something about being shot and eaten that didn’t sit well with them, so they moved away. (Talk about being sensitive.)

If you have an older bird book, you may notice that Tundra Swans used to be called “Whistling Swans.” They were called Whistling Swans for years, but then someone pointed out that swans don’t have lips and thus they couldn’t possibly whistle, so their name was changed. (Actually, the name change is more complicated than that, but we don’t need to dwell on boring details on Thanksgiving.) The new name fits these birds quite well since they breed high in the Arctic tundra. Each spring thousands of them descend on the northern edges of Canada’s Northwest Territory, Baffin Island and on Nunavut (Nunavut?) to lay their eggs. Because Arctic summers are short, pairs are formed before they arrive on the breeding grounds and the couples get right down to business as soon as they get there. Swans aren’t fussy when it comes to nest construction. Whereas some other species of birds will travel around looking for the best material, swans adhere to the “shop locally” philosophy. Their nests consist of whatever happens to be within a few feet of the nest site, combined with a little down from the female, just to give things a mother’s touch.

During the course of the Arctic summer the young cygnets grow quickly, and they need to. The season is short that far north. By late August, the family is ready to head south. Like most waterfowl, Tundra Swans migrate in large flocks, but within the flock the family units remain together. Each family spends the entire winter together and they don’t split up until the spring. This means swans are stuck dealing with their relatives over the holidays…just like the rest of us. Tundra Swans are the most common and widespread of our two native species of swans, but they’ve had their share of problems with humans. At first overhunting was an issue (darn those Pilgrims), but the real problem was the destruction of the important wetlands the birds needed for their winter survival. Fortunately, the swans have adapted to feeding on waste grain left in farmers’ fields. In the eastern part of the United States, the best place to see Tundra Swans is along the coastal areas of the mid-Atlantic states each winter. The birds can be seen cleaning waste grain from the area fields, but they are apparently careful not to overeat. Studies have shown that swans actually lose weight over the course of the winter. What? They can lose weight in the winter? I didn’t know that even was possible.

Your friend might be right about swans being served at the first Thanksgiving, Martin, but we just don’t know. However, whether it’s swans or turkeys, it’s still a sad day for birds. It’s too bad we don’t serve our guests a bird-free alternative on Thanksgiving. I think a yummy squash sandwich would be perfect. Doing that would not only save birds, but it would discourage our relatives from returning the following year. A win-win.