They can weigh in at 40 pounds or more. They prefer walking, but they can fly. And if Benjamin Franklin had had his way, they would be the U.S. national symbol. We’re talking turkey–wild turkey, that is.
This animal “is purely an American fowl and has no counterpart in other continents,” noted Louis A. Stahmer in his 1923 review of the bird. In fact, the turkey (Meleagris gallopava) is the only domesticated farm animal native to North America, according to Ohio State University’s Karl E. Nestor.
After heavy hunting and then neglect (once the domesticated variety began supplying meat) by the 1930s, wild-turkey populations had fallen to just 30,000 birds. Owing to the success of the recent stock-rebuilding program of the National Wild Turkey Federation, however, the latest U.S. turkey census puts the number of feral birds at some 6 million.
They’re now found in every state but Alaska, where it’s too cold for wild turkeys. Hunting has revived: Some 2 million people now shoot wild turkeys. This past spring alone, those hunters spent some $2 billion on their sport, the turkey federation reports–or “more than the domestic box office take of Titanic, Star Wars, and ET combined.” Though turkeys symbolize Thanksgiving, most hunting for the birds takes place in spring.
However, the bird that took center stage on most Thanksgiving dinner tables this week was anything but wild. It was a heavily domesticated version of the species that once inhabited Mexico’s highlands. Ironically, much of the domestication took place in Europe a long time ago.
In his 1991 history of the turkey for the Small Farmer’s Journal, Craig T. Russell, the current president of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, noted that a cathedral in Schelsing, Norway, boasts a mural and a frieze with eight medallions showing American turkeys. “Most authorities believe the frieze was painted at the same time as the mural, around 1280.” If so, he notes, European fascination with the bird began long before Columbus’ journey to the New World.
When the birds first arrived in Europe remains fuzzy. However, most historians agree that by 1520, Spaniards carried turkeys home to Europe, where poultry breeders began improving the stock.
According to Stahmer, “On account of their splendid appearance and their tender tasting meat, [these birds] may be said to have advertised themselves and within a few decades were to be found in practically every civilized land.” England acquired turkeys by 1524, Germany by 1530, and France 10 years after that. In fact, Stahmer notes, turkeys were a prized entrée at the 1570 wedding feast of Charles IX of France to Princess Elizabeth of Austria. In England at that time, the birds were becoming a traditional item on the British Christmas menu.
So why was a bird from “New Spain” called a turkey? Confusion over its name abounds. “Some say it arose from the proud ‘Turkish’ strut of the cock,” Stahmer says, or that the bird’s coloring resembled the red fez, dark gown, and red upturned shoes worn by Turks. He cites another account crediting turkey to the Hebrew word for peacock–tukki–which would have been used by Spanish Jews.
Though rudimentary domestication of the bird was under way in America when the Spaniards arrived, European biologists soon took over and transformed the nervous, squawking flyer to a far bigger animal that reproduces more quickly. Today, the domestic turkey reaches sexual maturity at 1 year–roughly half the age of maturity for it’s wild brethren.
When the British settled in North America, they brought along their domesticated turkeys, Russell notes, which the colonists sometimes crossbred with their wild American cousins. In time, U.S. poultry scientists took their turn at domestication, creating the huge-breasted, strutting gobblers that land on American dinner tables today.
This year, each person in the United States will, on average, eat 18 pounds of turkey. Obviously, the bird has become more than a holiday treat. Only 30 percent of consumption is tied to Thanksgiving or Christmas.
According to the National Turkey Federation, nearly 270 million of the birds will be raised this year. The top producing states: North Carolina, Ohio, and Minnesota–with about 45,000 birds each–followed by Missouri, Arkansas, and Virginia, which produce some 23,000 to 28,000 turkeys each. Nearly all of these turkeys are white birds called domestic broad-breasted varieties.
On the other hand, some farmers are committed to preserving old-style turkeys, notes Russell, a Pennsylvania farmer who has been raising small numbers of Standard Bronze, White Holland, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Black, Royal Palm, Lilac, Slate, Bourbon Red, Blue Palm, Royal Nebraska, Auburn, and Silver Auburn varieties. These old-fashioned farm turkeys, today referred to as heritage varieties, “are pretty much one breed,” Russell notes. “They just come in a wide variety of colors.” Not only beautiful, he says, “they’re sort of our living history–a part of our agricultural heritage.”
Standard supermarket birds are “a separate breed” with a dwindling gene pool, Russell says.
Just 50 years ago, there were more than 200 breeds and varieties of poultry in common agricultural use in the United States. “Today,” Russell told Science News Online, “there are less than a dozen ‘improved’ types.” He maintains that the heritage varieties are important to the future of turkey farming because they preserve a broader gene pool than typical supermarket birds do.
The narrowing of breeding lines, for the sake of producing a consistent product, has come at the price of the birds’ ability to survive off the farm. For instance, the quick-growing birds develop such large breasts that males can no longer mount females. So they are totally dependent on human-managed artificial insemination for their reproduction. The birds have also become increasingly vulnerable to pathogens, Russell notes.
Indeed, infections pose bigger risks today because of turkeys’ normally confined living and massive flock sizes. Today’s industrial farms may pen thousands of turkeys at one time. Just 5 decades ago, Russell points out, most turkeys came from farms growing fewer than 100 each, usually of a variety different from that on neighboring farms. Identifiable color patterns came with other genetic advantages over most modern birds: relative longevity, longer stamina, less susceptibility to disease, and better ability to stand up to bad weather.
For instance, Russell notes, as late as the 1950s, many turkeys were driven to market by the hundreds or thousands, much like cattle. “That’s where the dance–turkey trot–comes from,” he explains–from the birds’ gait as they were herded to market, sometimes over distances of 100 or more miles. “But with the modern broad-breasted turkey,” he contends, “if you tried to drive them anywhere, they’d either go down [from weak] legs or die from a heart attack within in the first half mile.”
Modern broad-breasted turkeys have been bred for tenderness and rapid weight gain, which allows them to go to market fast. Most are killed at about 16 weeks, but some poultry producers slaughter the birds as early as 8 weeks after hatching.
The broad-breasted turkey’s feed use is efficient. It takes only about 75 pounds of feed to raise a 30-pound male, a tom. By contrast, ranchers must supply many times that much feed to put 30 pounds on a cow.
Heritage-turkey-breeder Russell argues that quickly grown, young-slaughtered supermarket birds lack flavor and, in fact, are almost indistinguishable from similarly sized chickens. A mature heritage turkey, kept on the farm as long as 6 months before slaughter, tastes as different from a chicken as a tuna does from salmon, Russel claims.
On the plus side, broad-breasted supermarket birds make for relatively lean dining. Its flesh is lowest in saturated and unsaturated fat and contains the highest proportion of protein of any meat commercially available, according to a State of Massachusetts agricultural Web site. A 3.5-ounce serving of skinless turkey breast has 161 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 30 grams of protein. The same-size serving of skinless, dark-meat turkey has 192 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 28 grams of protein. A similar amount of lean beef or pork could have around 225 calories. Turkey is also low in cholesterol and free of hormone additives, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits the use of steroids in the production of these birds.
So what did my family eat on Turkey Day? It was a broad-breasted white raised on a Maryland farm 15 miles up the road from my house that offers free-range birds. My hen got to run around like old-style barnyard poultry for at least 6 months. But she was so big that I have plenty of leftovers. That’s where the recipe below should prove useful.
Did you know?
- Turkeys once filled the role of pesticides in crop fields. According to an article on turkeys 2 years ago in New Holland News Online, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson released flocks of turkeys to remove big green worms from their tobacco plants. The trick was to make sure the birds were “equally spaced so as not to miss a single plant,” according to the article.
- The same article notes that “flocks as large as 8,000 turkeys could be herded five to eight miles a day if there were enough men and boys around to keep the birds out of trouble.” The animals were kept on track to market with corn in a wagon up front.
- In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed making the turkey the official symbol of his new nation. It lost out to the bald eagle. In a letter to his daughter, Franklin lamented the choice, owing to the eagle’s “bad moral character.” He argued that “the turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”
- Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
- Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented a live Thanksgiving turkey to the President and two dressed (butchered) turkeys. By tradition, the President “pardons” the live bird, which then gets to live out its remaining days on an historic farm.
- Wild turkeys can be swift in short bursts–flying up to 55 miles per hour or running 20 miles per hour. Note: The large domestic turkeys that most of us eat lost their aerodynamic properties during breeding for heavy meat production, so they can’t fly.
- Only male turkeys–toms–gobble. Hens instead communicate with clicking noises or pseudogobbles.
- During a hen’s half-year laying cycle, she will produce up to 100 eggs. Then, such “spent” animals are usually sent to slaughter.
- The whole birds in most refrigerated grocery cases are hens. The larger toms are usually processed to make higher-value products, such as cutlets, tenderloins, sausage, and deli meats. Last year, roughly 690 million pounds of turkey were consumed in the United States.
- Turkey and all the trimmings were served up in foil food packets, providing Neil Armstrong’s and Edwin Aldrin’s first meal once they arrived at the moon.
- Roughly 13 percent of the nation’s turkey production goes into commercial pet food.
- Some 46 million turkeys will be eaten on Thanksgiving, another 22 million at Christmas dinners. Overall, 95 percent of U.S. residents reported eating turkey at Thanksgiving, according to a survey by the National Turkey Federation. However, turkey is also popular with the British. According to the British Turkey Information Service, 87 percent of people in Britain agree with the statement, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a traditional roast turkey.”
Using It All Turkey Soup (Recipe)
If you’ve prepared a big turkey for the holidays, here’s a soup to serve up the extras. This recipe, courtesy of the National Turkey Federation, serves eight.
- Turkey carcass containing at least 2 cups of cooked meat.
- 2 tbs. canola oil
- 3 cups sweet onions, thinly sliced
- 1 tbs. salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. ground sage
- 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
- 1.5 cups of celery cut into inch-long slices
- 2 cups carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 cups green beans, cut into inch-long slices
- 2/3 cup small pasta, such as shells
Debone the meat and chop into bite-size pieces. Refrigerate. Chop remaining carcass into several large pieces.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté onions until soft and light brown, then stir in turkey bones, salt, pepper, herbs, and 2 quarts water. Increase heat to high and quickly bring mix to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally.
Remove and discard bones and other carcass pieces.
Stir in vegetables, cover, and continue to simmer another 20-25 minutes.
Increase heat to high, bring mixture to a quick boil and stir in pasta.
Lower heat to medium and cook 8-12 minutes more, until pasta and vegetables are tender.
Add reserved turkey, stir, then heat over low burner for 5-10 minutes, or until the temperature reaches 165 degrees F.
Serve hot with crusty rolls.