The Wild Turduckens of High Mountain
November 24, 2021
Just in time for Thanksgiving, a story By Jim Wright, complete with recipe (illustration by Miwa Couweleers) .
This story originally appeared in Autumn Years magazine.
The Wild Turduckens of High Mountain, New Jersey
Forget the Jersey Devil. Ignore the Phantoms of the Ramapos. Pay no never mind to the mythic sea serpent of Lake Hopatcong.
I’m here to tell you about the cleverest creatures ever to roam the Garden State: the legendary Wild Turduckens of High Mountain.
Sure, you may have heard of the traditional Thanksgiving Turducken, a culinary concoction consisting of a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck, which is stuffed inside a deboned turkey, all of which is stuffed with stuffing. Think of edible Russian nesting dolls covered in gravy.
The Wild Turducken is a bird of a far different feather, originating many years ago in Passaic County. One night at dusk during the Great Depression, on High Mountain’s summit, game wardens got a fleeting glimpse of these large game birds for the very first time.
Until this discovery, the top of the 885-foot-tall High Mountain was famous mostly for its hiking trails as well as its breath-taking views of the nearby landscape and -- in the distance -- Manhattan, New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
All that changed on that fateful night. Based on the game wardens’ descriptions, experts determined that the large birds had to be a creature never known before to man: Wild Turduckens. These avian Frankenstein’s monsters, they concluded, had to be a genetic hodgepodge of domestic Turkey, a breed of chicken called a Jersey Giant, and a type of duck known as a Northern Shoveler.
A typical tom Turducken weighed an estimated 15 pounds, with an alluring wattle, the immense black bill of its duck forebears, and a bright red comb inherited from the chicken side of the family. Because of decades of inbreeding since then, it is now thought to be part cuckoo as well.
Few people have ever seen a Wild Turducken. Its daytime call imitates that of a common Blue Jay, so it goes unnoticed, and the chocolate-brown feathers adorning the rest of its body make it well nigh invisible at night.
A rare sighting of a resplendent tom, strolling around High Mountain’s summit under a full moon, is said to have inspired the expression “poultry in motion.”
One odd tidbit worth noting: Because of their mixed heritage, Wild Turduckens likely have semi-webbed feet, enabling them to negotiate the mountain’s rocky terrain after nightfall far faster than their prey.
Curiously, the feathers of this midnight marauder are said to be so soft that if you set your head on a pillow made from its down, you will sleep sounder than Rip Van Winkle and arise the next morning with more vigor than an over-caffeinated hummingbird.
No such pillow exists, of course, because none of these celebrated birds has ever been caught, let alone plucked.
The Wild Turducken’s origins are as elusive as the bird itself. Since no Turducken has availed itself of genetic testing, anthropologists have been forced to theorize that the first of the species descended from one female Jersey giant chicken in the 1920s.
The free-range hen, living on a farm in the High Mountain foothills, had apparently conducted simultaneous affairs with a debonnaire duck and toothsome turkey when the rooster wasn’t minding the henhouse.
After the chicken’s oversized eggs hatched, she and her peculiar brood were banished to the mountaintop, where the embittered birds learned to live by night.
Over time, as more and more trees grew on the once-barren summit, the large birds quickly ascended the food chain under the cover of darkness and disappeared into the stuff of legend.
These days, reports of wild Turduckens have are exceedingly rare. Even an unconfirmed sighting -- and they are all unconfirmed -- can draw Turducken aficionados from as far away as 50 miles.
That doesn’t mean this wily roaster has gone to that Big Rotisserie in the Sky. Many suspect that to elude detection, the Turducken has evolved.
A master of camouflage, the huge bird may well haunt High Mountain’s uplands to this day, blending in with the thousands of tree trunks.
(In contrast, scattered reports of another legendary bird, the Wild Quackenbush -- a duck shaped like a shrub -- have been dismissed as a hoax.)
Some say if you stand on the top of High Mountain at dusk and listen closely, you can still hear a mighty male Wild Turducken calling to its hen harem.
The chicken-hearted may insist it’s a mere Blue Jay, but what do they know?
Recipe for Roast Wild Turducken
1 Wild Turducken, plucked (12-16 pounds)
7 common taters
2 snake eyes, diced
4 Jersey tomatoes, drawn and quartered
3 cups extra-moist water
½ cup balsamic undressing
1 grain of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Catch Wild Turducken.
About High Mountain
A natural oasis amid urban sprawl, the 1,260-ace High Mountain Park Preserve is located in the Preakness Range of the Watchung Mountains.
Its rolling and often steep terrain provides 11.5 miles of often-challenging hiking trails. Panoramic vistas include stunning views from High Mountain's summit, where you can see New York City and much of northern New Jersey.
The nature preserve is the largest tract of forested land east of the Highlands, encompassing woodlands and wetlands. Along with its open space value, it harbors rare and threatened plants and wildlife.
Several rock shelters near the Clove section of the nature preserve have been determined to be sites of prehistoric human habitation. Native Americans of the Lenape tribe wintered in the Clove during the 1600s.
It is also said that when Henry Hudson sailed to America in 1609, the first land he sighted above the horizon as he approached New York Harbor was the summit of High Mountain. During the American Revolution, when General Washington was headquartered nearby, colonial troops reportedly used High Mountain’s summit to monitor British troop movements in and around New York Harbor.
High Mountain has been a popular hiking destination for more than a century. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has been active at High Mountain since the 1940s, creating and maintaining the trails.
High Mountain Park Preserve is owned by Wayne Township, The Nature Conservancy and the state of New Jersey, and was established in 1993.
The ever-popular Wild Turducken plush toy, created by Carol Flanagan