By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama pardoned his last turkey as U.S. president on Wednesday, but his daughters should beware: he plans to continue the tradition as a private citizen.

Obama, who leaves office in January, has followed the annual tradition of "pardoning" a turkey every year before the Thanksgiving Day holiday, which many Americans celebrate with a turkey dinner.

His daughters, Malia and Sasha, often join their father for the tongue-in-cheek Rose Garden Ceremony. Not this year.

"Of course, Thanksgiving is a family holiday as much as a national one. So for the past seven years, I've established another tradition: embarrassing my daughters with a corny-copia of Dad jokes about turkeys," Obama said.

"This year they had a scheduling conflict," he deadpanned.

The president was joined in the Rose Garden by his young nephews, Austin and Aaron Robinson, instead.

He joked that he planned to keep up the tradition during his post presidency.

"Malia and Sasha, by the way, are thankful that this is my final presidential turkey pardon. What I haven’t told them yet is that we are going to do this every year from now on," he said to laughter. "No cameras. Just us. Every year. No way I’m cutting this habit cold turkey."

White House staffers, eager to see the final iteration of the annual tradition, filled the Rose Garden for the ceremony. The president had some more serious words for them and the public, too.

"On this Thanksgiving, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the American people for the trust that you’ve placed in me over these last eight years and the incredible kindness that you’ve shown my family," he said. "On behalf of Michelle, and my mother-in-law, and our girls, we want to thank you so very, very much."

After finishing his remarks, the president blessed a 40-pound (18-kg) fowl from Iowa, granting it a long life and a pardon from appearing on an American dinner table. A backup turkey also had its life spared. Their names: "Tot" and "Tater."

(additional reporting by Alexa Spencer; Editing by Alan Crosby, Larry King)