The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
November 23, 2010
Tales of three turkeys
Wild turkeys can run 25 mph and fly twice that. What modern farm birds do fastest is gain weight.
As human clans gather for the holidays, wild turkey families split apart. Young males have left the brood, but their sisters will stick with mom for the winter. Dad gobbler was never part of the family — just a fleeting spring fling for the hen.
By autumn, turkeys have moved into the deep woods, where they wander in flocks and fatten up on acorns and other tree fruits.
Native Americans managed their forests to accommodate large populations of wild turkeys, which were an important source for food and feathers for adornment.
A radical transformation of the American landscape had almost eradicated wild turkeys by the 1930s. Since then, protection, reforestation and restocking efforts have made them plentiful enough to hunt again.
Turkeys were domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico long before Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s. Shipped back to Europe, the birds became a common barnyard animal.
Hundreds of years of breeding resulted in a wide variety of turkey breeds. About a dozen of these "heritage" breeds are still raised but make up less than 1 percent of today's market.
One such breed is the Narragansett, descended from a cross between wild turkeys and domestic turkeys brought back across the Atlantic by European colonists in the 1600s. Like other heritage breeds, they can fly, live outdoors and breed naturally. They need time to fully develop their skeletons and organs before building muscle mass, and may be more than 2 years old by the time
they're ready for the market.
Most supermarket turkeys are a special industrial-agriculture breed known as the broad-breasted white, which rapidly converts its feed into meat in only 14 to 18 weeks.
Poorly formed bones and organs can result in crippling deformities and metabolic disorders in the birds. Their bulk renders them incapable of flying. Although the turkeys are capable of mating, artificial insemination is used for the sake of safety and efficiency.
Once a year, since 1989, one of these champions receives a "pardon" of its death sentence from the president of the United States. Previous pardoned birds have served as honorary grand marshals at Disney Thanksgiving Day parades, but this year's pampered bird will be sent to Mount Vernon.
Sources: West Virginia Department of Natural Resources; National Wild Turkey Federation; American Livestock Breeds Conservancy; Heritage Turkey Foundation;
the Humane Society of the United States; staff reports; National Turkey Federation