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The Evolution Of The Thanksgiving Turkey

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Millions of people in D.C., Maryland and Virginia will be sitting down to a turkey feast on Thanksgiving, but just where did Turkeys come from?

A different looking bird

Julie Long is a poultry researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville Maryland. Her building is an old almost Victorian looking facility on the outside, but full of lab equipment and offices on the inside. It is also conspicuously free of turkeys.

“Yes. Um.  We do usually have turkeys here," says Long. "We don’t have turkeys right now."

Evidently, they went to visit the turkey barn in the sky.

Instead of real turkeys, Long refers to an old, crumbling book that depicts turkeys as they looked like a hundred years go: "Spanish black, bourbon red, buff turkies – lots of different colorations -- the blue slates, more of a gray than a blue, related to a lilac turkey which I don’t think is around any more."

Long juxaposes that with a photo of what most turkeys look like today: "The bird is completely white. Has no coloring in the feathers whatsoever. The birds now are are capable of putting on a lot of muscle so they have a much bigger frame. So the birds you would’ve seen back then at maturity -- the adult males, which are called Toms -- probably weighed 20 pounds at maturity, and now a mature Tom can get up to 65 to 70 pounds."

Turkeys have come a long, long way

"The turkeys we eat today for thanksgiving were originally domesticated in central mexico about 2000 years ago," says Smithsonian anthropologist Bruce Smith. "Initially it appears they were domesticated for their feathers  -- for ceremonies, for dances, for rituals, for adornment rather than for meat."

Then the conquistadors came, explains Long.

"When the Spanish conquerors came over they were used to eating peacocks in Europe and they saw these big turkeys and said 'whoah there’s a lot more meat on a turkey -- we like these birds better, let’s take them back to Europe.'"

From there, the turkey spread throughout Europe. So at the first Thanksgiving, Turkeys weren’t a new concept to anyone, says Long. The pilgrims brought domesticated turkeys with them, though they did also decimate large populations of wild birds in all the areas where they settled as well.

Fast forward to the 1930s, the advent of mass consumption and the bird begins to change dramatically. It’s bred to be all white

"When you have a feather that has some sort of color associated with it, sometimes there can be pigment in the skin when you pluck the feather. So often times the wild turkeys or wild breeds would have lots of dark spots on the meat. It just doesn’t look very appealing.”

In the 50s, with further industrialization of the food system, the bird is bred for size. Modern turkeys are so large, in fact, they can’t reproduce on their own.

"The favorite part of the meat which everybody likes is the breast muscle. And because it’s so large in the Toms, it kind of gets in the way. All commercial birds are produced from artificial insemination."

Long says its a good thing that we have the technology to overcome the limitations we have imposed on these birds. With higher amounts of meat per bird, there are less turkeys bred for slaughter, less agricultural spaces needed to house them, and less waste.

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