3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Turkey

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

The Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey. Photo by Dan Garber, Smithsonian Institution.

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans will once again head over the river and through the woods—or onto the interstates and jam-packed jets, as the case may be. Millions more will stay home to host family and friends. Most will likely serve turkey. After all, it’s America’s traditional Thanksgiving entrée.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Long, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, here are three things Long shared that you probably didn’t know about turkey.

  1. There may no longer be any populations of the wild turkey that was the ancestor of the turkey most Americans will eat this Thanksgiving.

Long and other scientists from USDA, the Netherlands’ Wageningen University, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute determined that the ancestor of today’s Thanksgiving dinner turkeys was most likely a wild turkey from Mexico.

However, the only place the team could find that turkey was as a preserved specimen at the Smithsonian Institution. And that turkey was genetically distinct from today’s wild turkeys.

“The wild birds that are in North America are not genetically related to the commercial breeds that we eat,” Long says. The team published its findings in BMC Genomics in 2012.

Apparently, early Spanish explorers took the ancestral birds back to Europe. Farmers there developed different breeds. Later, English colonists brought domesticated turkeys with them to Jamestown. So much for a totally “American” tradition.

  1. Although many media photos of live turkeys show brown birds, the turkey on most Americans’ tables this Thanksgiving will have had white feathers.

Brown turkeys are tasty and edible. But they probably wouldn’t look that good to most Americans.

“At the tip of every feather that’s colored, there’s a bit of pigment in the skin,” Long explains.

That pigment causes dark spots on the skin. Rather than educate people about the meat’s wholesomeness, commercial turkey breeders just raise white turkeys instead.

  1. All turkeys for large-scale U.S. commercial operations must be artificially inseminated.

In a quest to get the most white meat per turkey at the lowest cost, farmers have bred turkeys to have “enormous breasts,” says Long. “A male turkey can up to get up to 70 or 80 pounds when they’re mature,” says Long.

However, those big-breasted males “physically can’t get where they need to be,” Long says. As a result, farmers need to help them along with artificial means. Because of poultry’s biology, however, achieving high rates of success is more difficult than it is for mammals.

I’m thankful that Long shared these insights with me, along with lots of other fascinating information for the article I was preparing at the time. That piece should be out this winter.

More generally, I’m grateful for all the patience and courtesies that researchers show to me throughout the year so I can better understand and write about science. And I’m thankful for readers who enjoy this blog, along with my books and articles for a variety of outlets.

Here’s hoping everyone has a blessed and wonderful Thanksgiving!




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