by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist
From the book The American Turkey by Andrew Smith, and sent to me this morning by a fellow entomologist here at UK:
"By far the most important reason for the growth of the domesticated turkey population in America, particularly in Virginia and Maryland, was tobacco. Tobacco was America's first agribusiness and preeminent colonial export. A major challenge in growing the crop was to control tobacco hornworms (Sphinx carolina)...In a time before pesticides and other deterrents, planters were helpless to fight hornworm infestation....To the rescue came the turkey, an omnivore that loves to feast on insects and bugs and finds the large and meaty tobacco worm irresistible. By the mid-eighteenth century planters were sending turkeys into their tobacco fields to eat worms...Fifty turkeys could handle an estimated hundred thousand worms if properly managed." The turkeys then became Thanksgiving dinners in the South, and the tradition grew from there!