There's no better time than today to bring yourself abreast, so put aside the carving knife and gravy boat and settle back for a leisurely look at the state of the American turkey.
On the plus side, the turkey is bigger and meatier than ever. Per capita consumption is at new highs and turkey farms have become expensive factories, with automated assembly lines steadily cranking out bird after bird -- a record 2.4 billion pounds of meat last year.
But with a plaintive note, it must be reported that today's Thanksgiving turkey is a far gobble from the native bird that old Ben Franklin thought deserved to be the national emblem. Its shape has changed; its sex life is nil.
In fact, most of today's commercial turkeys are the result of artificial insemination. The male of the species has been bred to have such a robust chest that he can't strut, preen and sidle up to the hen to mate as nature intended.
Artificial inseminators at the turkey farms do the job for the tom. The hens then go ahead and do their part, laying the eggs, hatching their chicks. But the hens, alas, suffer from what researchers call "broodiness" -- a petulant refusal to eat or move about that affects egg production. No wonder.
Agricultural research, much of it funded by the federal government, is one of the reasons for this state of affairs. Just as science looks for better ways to build rockets, science also is looking for better ways to produce turkeys. There are, to be sure, more giblets, but the romance is gone.
Yet all of this has led to some amazing developments.
Some years ago, for example, Agriculture Department researchers produced a "churk," a cross between a chicken and a turkey. They proved it could be done, but it was seen as a novelty -- a fowl ball, as it were -- and it never got off the roost as a farm favorite.
Then there was the "Beltsville turkey," a brilliant idea that became the Edsel of the avian world. Developed at USDA's Beltsville, Md., research center, this was a small roaster-fryer (5 to 9 pounds) that was intended to be, in the words of Lew Walts, "America's Wednesday night dinner." It's still around, but it never really caught on.
Walts is the National Turkey Federation's man in Washington, beating the tom-toms for the 2,800 farmers who produce the bird that has become synonymous with holiday, feast, tradition. Even Walts laments just a little bit the deturkeyfication of the turkey.
But anyway . . .
"We are at a very high level of technology now in the turkey industry," he said the other day. "The turkey is a very efficient converter of grain to meat and it is highly nutritious -- high protein, low fat and low cholesterol. . . . In the long push and pull of things, I feel the turkey industry will make more of a contribution to consumers than any other of the meat producers."
The technology includes breeding techniques and genetic developments that have created a top-heavy turkey because of the desire to get more breast meat.
"Because of the breast size," Walts said, "the males have become so unbalanced they can't mate naturally. So hatcheries with turkey flocks have insemination crews that 'milk' the toms and inseminate the hens every 10 days or so." The end product is a big-chested male bird, bred to have thick thighs and meaty drumsticks and a female bird with enhanced fertility, egg production and hatchability (a hen's productive life goes on about 20 weeks and stops somewhere around 100 eggs).
Meanwhile, USDA's researchers are pushing toward new frontiers, with studies on reproduction, nutrition and bird diseases going on continually at Beltsville and other centers.
For instance, Dr. Thomas Sexton at the Beltsville avian physiology laboratory, is trying to find ways to store turkey semen for extended periods. He is the man who developed chicken-semen storage techniques that were a boon to production in that industry. But turkeys are different and so it was back to the drawing board.
Others are trying to identify the mechanisms that control ovulation in the hen. Research is going on to determine which hormones are involved, with the hope of extending the hen's productive life and modify her broodiness.