Trump pardons turkey: A look at the White House's Thanksgiving tradition

It’s a big day to be a tom.

President Trump used his presidential pardoning power to grant mercy to one lucky bird named "Drumstick" at the White House Tuesday afternoon. A fairly new tradition, the event spares one turkey from dinner just two days before Thanksgiving, the biggest turkey-eating holiday all year.

How did the tradition start?

Although there’s much speculation over just who was the first president to actually pardon the poultry, experts – including the National Turkey Federation (NFT) – credit former President George H.W. Bush for starting the official tradition.

“The formalities of pardoning a turkey jelled by 1989, when George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped, ‘But let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy – he's granted a presidential pardon as of right now -- and allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here,’” the White House Historical Society says.

The custom of sending turkeys to the White House is an old one – dating back to the 1870s when “poultry king” Horace Voce would send his birds – but many former leaders of the free world actually ate the turkeys instead of setting them free. 

However, some presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, did spare a few fowls in their day.


Former President Harry S. Truman was the first president to receive a turkey from the National Turkey Federation in 1947.  (White House archives)

Harry S. Truman, too, was rumored to have saved a few birds in his day, although his presidential library dispelled those claims. Those rumors most likely stem from Truman being the first president to be presented with a turkey by the NFT in 1947. The annual event has been a tradition ever since – although it’s not clear what the fate was for every turkey presented.

How are the turkeys selected?

The NFT’s chairman is elected every February, but official preparations for the annual pardoning begin around July or August, Kimmon Williams, the public relations manager for the federation, told Fox News.

This year’s pair – Wishbone and Drumstick – were raised in Minnesota, the top turkey producing state, by NFT Chariman Carl Wittenburg, his wife and five members of a local 4-H chapter. They were selected out of a flock of about 20 turkeys.

The Presidential Flock are usually toms – males – because of their traditional appearance, strut and gobbling sounds, according to Williams. The pair are picked based on their characteristics, personality and interactions with people, she said.

How do the turkeys prepare for the big event?

The Presidential Flock doesn’t arrive in Washington, D.C., without a little training first. They are “acclimated from an early age to the unique experiences of the ceremony: television lights and crowded noises,” according to the NFT.


Wishbone and Drumstick, the 2017 Presidential Flock, pose for photos during a media day at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., ahead of their presidential pardon at the White House Tuesday.  (Fox News/Jacqueline Pham)

Williams said the turkeys, too, will take a tour around their home state ahead of their trip to the nation’s capital, where they will meet with schoolchildren. This gives the turkeys more of a chance to interact with crowds and unusual noises, and the children an opportunity to experience farm culture.

And where do the turkeys stay once they are in Washington?  

Ahead of the pardoning, the two turkeys live large.

The turkeys are put up in the Willard InterContinental Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., – a swanky hotel near the White House. Wishbone and Drumstick will check out of their accommodations on Tuesday.

In this photo released by The White House, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, two turkeys set to be pardoned by President Donald Trump are shown in a Washington hotel, Sunday Nov. 19, 2017.  President Trump will pardon them on Tuesday.  (White House Photo by Hannah MacInnis via AP)

The 2017 Presidential Flock, Wishbone and Drumstick, enjoy their accommodations at the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington, D.C., ahead of Tuesday's pardoning event.  (White House Photo by Hannah MacInnis via AP)

Don’t worry, taxpayers: the NFT said it covers the cost of the hotel stay.

What’s next for the free birds?

While only Drumstick was publicly pardoned during the ceremony at the White House, both turkeys will go to Virginia Tech’s “Gobbler’s Rest” where they will be cared for by students and veterinarians. They will join last year’s turkeys, Tater and Tot.

Other birds have been sent to farms and mini zoos.

The public is welcome to visit Wishbone and Drumstick in Blacksburg, Va., but not for long.

With luck, the Presidential Flock might live another year or more. A few of their predecessors have hit the ripe old age of 2, but very few domestic turkeys live that long. The vast majority get sent to processing plants when they're between 14 to 20 weeks old.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @K_Schallhorn.