turkey on farm at sunset

Turkey History

A Very Brief Turkey History

Turkey History: Where they came from historically and how the wild turkey became domesticated (including its trip to Europe).

Turkeys have been around for a long time. Turkey history actually starts millions of years ago. Their fossils have been found in Pleistocene deposits which means that they have been around more than twelve thousand years and their predecessors go back 50 to 60 million years to the Eocene period.

Wild turkeys were domesticated in Mexico between 200 B.C. and 700 A.D. And when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they were introduced to turkeys by the Aztecs. Turkey history in Europe began when, in the early 1500s, these birds were shipped to Spain where they quickly spread throughout western Europe.

Turkey history took an interesting turn in America when the colonists came to America one hundred years after the first turkeys were sent to Europe.

They brought domesticated turkeys back with them. These birds were bred with Wild Turkeys to create turkey breeds which were more hearty and meatier.

Domestic Turkey Breeds - Standard and Heritage

The colonists came to America and bred the stock they brought from Europe to the Eastern Wild Turkey. The oldest American turkey breed resulting from this was the Narragansett. This bird and six others are now included as Standard varieties.

Standard means that the birds are listed as varieties in the "American Standard of Perfection" as cataloged by the American Poultry Association (APA). These "Standards" are often referred to as "breeds". Many of these breeds have been listed since the end of the nineteenth century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, birds were bred for size, for show, and for specific feather color. But turkey history changed when an English turkey breeder, Jesse Throssel, moved to British Columbia Canada in 1926. In 1927, he had his breeding stock sent to him from England - just three birds.

He bred his birds for meat. Some of these turkeys put on a great amount of meat on the breast, so much so that they began having difficulty mating naturally.

Throssel sold some of his toms from BC to Oregon where they really caught on. These birds were crossed with other high meat producing turkeys and natural mating became even more of a problem.

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

The turkey that became known as the Broad Breasted Bronze became the commercial turkey of the day. It grew in popularity through the 1940's.

In the 1950s the BBB was "improved" to make it's skin a uniform color by breeding it with a White Holland. This produced the Broad Breasted White which, because of its white feathers, had less visible pin feathers.

More and more turkeys were bred for maximum profitability and to meet consumer demand for large amounts of breast meat. One specific turkey breed emerged to meet these criteria, and it is the only commercially important turkey breed today. It is the Broad Breasted White.

Since its introduction it has continued to be bred to put on greater amounts of white meat in a shorter time and at a lower cost. The genes (in the form of breeding stock) of strains of the Broad Breasted White are owned by three companies: Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms of Sonoma, California; British United Turkey of America of Lewisburg, West Virginia; and Hybrid Turkeys of Ontario, Canada.

The Broad Breasted Whites became so economical and popular that other turkeys were no longer produced in numbers to support their breeds. Turkey history nearly ended for all other breeds. The Broad Breasted White which can not fly, can not mate and can not survive in the wild has almost replaced the "fit" heritage turkeys.

Some heritage varieties continued to be raised on small farms and some of these varieties were Standard, but all were quickly nearing extinction.

According to the The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), by 1997 from eight heritage varieties there were only 1,335 breeding turkeys remaining. The Narragansett had only six (6) breeding birds, and there were less than 100 Slates and Blacks.

In June 2001 Slow Food USA changed turkey history when it selected four varieties of "heritage" turkeys to board "Ark of Taste." These were historically significant small farm birds. The turkeys selected were the American Bronze, Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, and the Narragansett.

The support and exposure that came from this Slow Food project may have saved these birds from extinction. More recent ALBC surveys found that Narragansett population had increased from 6 in 1997 to 368 in 2003. Over the same time period Slates rose from 77 to 437, and Blacks rose from 81 to 478. In the winter of 2006, the ALBC's survey found a total breeding population of 5,363. The Narragansett population had reached 686.

The number of these heritage birds is only a small percentage of birds sold, but with demand supplies are growing. You may not want a heritage turkey every time you buy a turkey, but it is important that there is a choice.

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