Saturday 8 October 2011

Gobble, Gobble

I couldn’t let Thanksgiving weekend pass without writing something about turkeys and their history.  It’s been fun researching this blog.  I learned a lot along the way.

Turkeys have been part of North American culture for a lot longer than pilgrims and Thanksgiving.  Did you know that fossil records indicate that they diverged from pheasants about 11 million years ago?  During the Pleistocene age, their habitat probably extended from the middle latitudes of North America to the northern latitudes of South America.

Turkeys were one of the first animals to be domesticated in the Americas.  The Aztecs considered them so important that they dedicated two religious festivals to them.  The Maya raised them too, as did the Navajo.

By the time the first European explorers arrived in Mexico, turkeys were a commonly raised domestic animal.  In 1519, Cortez and his fellow Spanish Conquistadors found the Aztecs raising huexolotlin (turkeys) around their homes, and turkey was served at royal meals hosted by Montezuma.

The Spaniards carried turkeys back to Europe where they quickly became a popular fowl and a choice dish for state dinners. The turkey was little larger than the traditional goose, with a lot more meat and a refreshingly new taste.

Turkeys were introduced at a time when America was called The Spanish Indies or the New Indies, illustrating the confusion in people's minds about the true location of the continent where Columbus had landed. As a result, the Spaniards mistakenly called them "Indian fowl."

In 1530, Levant merchantsEnglish traders in Turkeyencountered “Indian fowl” there and brought them home to England.  Because of the area in which traders had first encountered the bird, they called it a "Turkey bird."

When the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 and began to search for native sources of food, they discovered that the Wampanoags and other northeastern First Nations hunted wild turkeys very similar to the farm-raised ones they'd brought with them from England.  The pilgrims crossbred wild turkeys with their domestic birds.

Wild turkeys could fly fast but not far, they had poor eyesight, and weren’t very smart.  They were easily trapped or shot, making them a primary source of food for early settlers.  By the late 1700’s, they were harvested without restraint and were available at such a low price that people looked down on turkey as food only for the lower classes.

The mid-1800’s, the civil war, and a shortage of food eliminated wild turkeys from more than half of their range.  By the early 20th century, the wild turkey population had dwindled in number to around 30,000, sparking the beginning of a conservation effort in the 1920’s.  By 1959, the total turkey population numbered around half a million.  Now more than 7 million wild turkeys roam the range of their original habitat.

The domesticated turkey has had its own checkered history.  Until the early 20th century, turkeys were bred for size, for show, and for specific feather colour.  In 1927, though, English turkey breeder James Throssel imported three birds as breeding stock to his new farm in British Columbia.  He bred his birds for meat and soon some of them were putting so much meat on in the breast that they were having trouble breeding naturally.  Throssel traded his birds with other meat turkey farmers in BC and Oregon where further crossbreeding for high meat production made natural breeding even more difficult.

In 1934, the USDA introduced a practical method of artificial insemination for turkeys, which allowed turkeys unable to mate naturally to reproduce.

The turkey of choice right through the 1940’s was the Broad Breasted Bronze—a descendant of Throssel’s turkeys—but turkeys with coloured feathers often had coloured markings on their skins where the pin feathers were.  A desire for a more uniform skin colour prompted turkey farmers to cross the Broad Breasted Bronze turkey with the White Holland.  The resulting breed, the Broad Breasted White, is the only commercially important turkey breed today.

Turkey breeders have continued to breed the Broad Breasted White turkey for greater meat production, in a shorter period of time.  They became so popular that other strains of turkey were no longer being raised in sufficient numbers to support their breeds.  Some heritage breeds were being raised on small farms but they were quickly nearing extinction.

In June 2001, Slow Food USA undertook a project to preserve four heritage turkey breeds—American Bronze,  Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, and Narragansettand the support and publicity from their project may have saved these birds from extinction.  They still form only a very small percentage of the domesticated turkeys raised in North America but, with demand, their numbers are growing.

So, we have more things than we knew to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend:  Even though our appetite for turkey first almost caused its extinction in the wild, and then selective breeding for meat and marketability almost eliminated heritage breeds, we still have both wild turkeys and heritage farm raised turkeys here in North America. And not only do we still have them, but their numbers are increasing.

Imagine how very sad it would be for 11 million years of heritage and history to end with a group of birds that cannot fly, cannot breed naturally, and cannot survive in the wild.  Thank goodness common sense prevailed.

Please note:  I usually include end note references with my blogs, specifically noting the origins of each piece of information I’ve sourced elsewhere, but my blogs also usually include opinions and sometimes recipes that originate with me.  With the exception of the introduction and the last two paragraphs, this blog is different:  Virtually all of the information I’ve provided here has originated from other sources.  Some of it is quoted verbatim.  Rather than add an end note to every single sentence or paragraph, I’ve chosen to list my references below.

The bulk of my information came from and also referred to,, and 


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