Turkeys: How We Got Here

A wild turkey in flight.
Flight plays an important role in the life of a wild turkey, but is impossible for large breed turkeys due to their their size and unnaturally large breast. Photo: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

September 15, 2020

A Tale Of Two Turkeys

Although there are millions of individual turkeys in the world, all of them belong to only of one of two species! The domestic turkey that we know and love (Meleagris gallopavo) is classified as the same species as the wild turkeys (also Meleagris gallopavo!) that roam across North America.

The other turkey species, Meleagris ocellata, is a wild bird that roams the forests of the Yucatán Peninsula in Central America. The turkey was first domesticated by the Aztec civilization centuries before colonizers arrived in the Americas. They were also domesticated by the indigenous peoples of what is now the Southwestern United States, notably the Anasazi People. Originally, turkeys were used by humans primarily for their feathers for ceremonies, clothes, and blankets.

In the 1400s, Conquistadors from Spain took these early domestic turkeys back to Europe, bred them with local birds, and then brought those descendants back to the Americas in the 1600s, forever changing the genetic makeup of the North American turkey. Later in the colonization of America, newcomers from Europe emblemized the wild turkey as a sign of abundant resources and promise. This romanticization of the turkey and later demand to associate their bodies with celebration has since proven to have drastic consequences for the bird.

Turkey Troubles

A large, white broad breasted turkey with a swollen hock stands on a dirt road.
Large breed turkeys like Marty are prone to a host of health issues to due the way they have been bred. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

In the past century, domestic turkeys have been bred by humans against their best interests with dire consequences for their health and well-being. This is especially apparent when looking at Broad-Breasted turkeys, who are by far the most common type of turkey in the world due to human industrial breeding practices. Whereas wild turkeys can fly up to a mile at a time at 55 miles-per-hour, Broad-Breasted and other large breed turkeys (often referred to as “Industry” or “Commercial Turkeys” by the meat industry) have lost the ability to fly due to their abnormal size; Broad-Breasted male turkeys grow three times as large as mature wild turkeys in just four months. This strain on their bodies produces heart and leg problems and can cripple birds. Large breed domestic turkeys cannot even reproduce naturally; male turkeys have been bred to have such large breasts that they physically cannot mate. Large breed turkeys are typically raised in large scale industrial settings with up to 10,000 turkeys packed into a single building, and 30,000 birds might be under the care of a single worker. These turkeys are typically slaughtered when they are between 99 and 135 days old. Because they have been bred to grow so large,  if you’re caring for a large breed turkey, it’s critical that you monitor their weight and food intake as they can very easily eat until they reach deadly weights and are prone to other health challenges related to their unnatural body composition. For more information on large breed turkey care, read our resource here. 

Though also raised for their flesh, heritage turkeys (who we refer to as “non-large breed turkeys”) have significantly fewer health challenges than large breed turkeys and bear a much closer resemblance to their wild cousins. These turkeys have been bred far less intensively than their large breed counterparts, and are bred far less commonly in general; it’s estimated that only 25,000 or so non-large breed turkeys are raised each year versus hundreds of millions of large breed turkeys. Non-large breed turkeys grow much slower and less overall than large breed turkeys; they are still capable of flying to some degree and can mate naturally. These birds can also typically be fed free-choice and live significantly longer lives than large breed turkeys. Common breeds include the American Bronze, the Bourbon Red, the Jersey Buff, the Narragansett, the Royal Palm, and the White Holland.

Though non-large breed turkeys may face fewer health challenges during their lives, both large breed and non-large breed turkeys face the same cruel death. The USDA’s Humane Methods Of Slaughter Act exempts birds used for their flesh from consideration, so it is not required that they are stunned before slaughter. 

While many repeat the myth that turkeys are unintelligent beings, domestic turkeys are known to have a relatively understandable vocalized language, miss their companions over many days, mourn the death of flockmates, and have been known to have heart attacks in the mere anticipation of pain when they watch fellow turkeys get killed. Like all animals raised for early death, they deserve better. Maybe convince a friend to gobble something else this Thanksgiving?

SOURCES:

The Complicated History Of The Domesticated Turkey | Discover Magazine

Where Did The Domestic Turkey Come From? | Cornell

Turkey Production on Factory Farms | Farm Sanctuary

The Enigmatic Intelligence Of Turkeys | The Dodo

Heritage Turkey Breeds | Heritage Foods USA (Non-Compassionate Source)

Updated on December 23, 2020

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