Tag Archives: Meleagris gallopavo

Science Friday: Turkey The Bird

Male wild turkey Photo: Public domain
Male wild turkey
Photo: Public domain

*The turkey is native to North America–the U.S. and Mexico–and is in the genus Meleagris. The common wild turkey and its domestic cousin is Meleagris gallopavo. Another species is ocellated turkey and it only resides in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

*Archaeological evidence indicates Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys and the Aztecs as well. Turkey feathers were used for decorative purposes.

*Europeans first thought the Americas were part of Asia so the turkey was considered part of the guineafowl family. It was called guineaturkey and then shortened to just turkey. There are guineafowl in Turkey and back then giving a bird an exotic name added to its mystique. The name stuck.

*The Spanish brought turkeys to Spain where it was domesticated and new breeds resulted. English navigator William Strickland is credited with bringing turkey to England in the 16th century and his coat of arms has a turkey in it.

*Domesticated turkeys were considered a luxury food. Most people could not afford it until the late 19th century. Most people in had goose, duck, or beef for Christmas dinner (Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol had a goose). Scrooge bought a turkey for Cratchit which was something very special in those days.

*Turkey producers worked to lower the cost (by breeding birds to be plump and cheaper by the pound to sell)but it was the advent of refrigeration that allowed turkeys to be sent whole to markets (first by rail then by truck). Home refrigeration opened up the turkey market for everyone and with turkey prices lower than good cuts of beef, a better alternative. Today turkeys are sold fresh and frozen year round.

*Breeder farms supply turkey eggs to hatcheries (they are often artificially inseminated). After they hatch, they are sent to special grow farms and later to a main area. The are mostly indoor these days to prevent infection from being outside and to maximize production cost. It does keep the costs down but also has some problems. Turkeys can be aggressive and will peck each other, sometimes to death. Some producers clip their beaks when they are young. Some turkeys can develop health issues which means some die before reaching maturity becoming a loss to the producer. In recent years efforts have been made to make these areas more conducive to turkey roosting.

*Heritage turkeys (turkeys raised the old fashioned way-outdoors)has gained popularity in recent years. These use breeds that were more common long ago before the full domestication began. They are allowed to free range, reproduce naturally, and mature longer. Cook’s Illustrated reports they have more fat as a result of this longer maturity. The average domestic has more meat but more lean because once they mature, they are sent to the butcher. Heritage turkeys are more expensive than the mass produced turkeys.

*Wild turkeys, once thought to be nearly extinct, are now quite numerous again in North America. While domesticated versions can barely fly when they are young, their wilder cousins can fly,roost in trees and avoid predators (foxes, owls, snakes). Their eggs are often targets for raccoons and opossums. Wild turkeys travel in same sex flocks (male/male or female/female)with the exception of young turkeys that follow their mothers for about five months. They eat a wide assortment from insects, spiders and small frogs to fruits, flowers, acorns and grasses. They roam about during the day seeking food and in flocks. It is rare to see a turkey by itself in the wild. Males are four feet long and females three. Their breast feathers indicate which sex they are (males have breast feathers with black tips, females are brown). They are fast runners.

*Turkey flocks do not tolerate new members easily. If a turkey from a unknown pack or another nearby should come into their group, it may be attacked and killed.

*Turkey flocks can be a threat to agriculture because they are rapacious eaters. So in areas where turkey flocks exist (generally in woodlands, forests, and meadows), growers and farmers have to take special precautions to deter them from eating up their crops or their food to livestock. Turkeys are not seasonal and will stay year round even when there is snow on the ground.

*Homeowners in areas where turkey flocks roam have to take precautions as well like making sure not to feed them or leave out food they can get to (like bird seed). Turkeys can be aggressive and try to dominate (they are not territorial though, they just want to dominate). If they are not discouraged early on, they can become a real problem in the area because the behavior is impossible to change after that point. Often this results in them being killed since relocation rarely solves the problem. They can attack small children and seniors (they have sharp beaks) so chasing them away with brooms or other significant non-lethal methods usually works. Because their numbers have gotten large, annual hunts are allowed (by permit)in some areas to keep the turkey population from getting out of hand.

*The biggest consumer per capita of turkey are Israelis. In the early days refrigeration was not common and meat was hard to come by. Turkeys though are easy to domesticate and provide good meat. Which is why turkey is very big in Israel and why you find turkey pastrami is very popular. Kosher turkey is available in the United States from producers in Pennsylvania. Unlike other birds, if you brine this bird you do not need salt as the Kosher process adds salt.