ARE SAFE AGAIN
by Whit Gibbons
November 21, 2004
turkeys always celebrate Thanksgiving after the fact and are totally unappreciative
that our entire country dedicates a day to them every year. But the wild
turkey is far removed from the fat, white, domesticated birds that land
on millions of tables during the holiday season every year.
wild turkey is a national symbol familiar to all Americans, one that schoolchildren
draw colorful pictures of in November. Wild turkeys occur naturally from
southern Canada into Mexico and Guatemala. Based on reports of early settlers
and naturalists, eastern North America had an abundance of wild turkeys.
As the country developed, however, the species began to decline and disappear.
Old reports state that the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was killed
in 1851, and the last one to be seen in Connecticut was in 1813. Some
probably survived in forested areas in most states south of New England,
although populations became sparse everywhere. Into the mid-1900s, many
experienced ornithologists had never seen a wild turkey because of their
through efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation headquartered in
Edgefield, S.C., in cooperation with state wildlife agencies, wild turkeys
thrive throughout much of their original geographic range. Restoration
projects and programs to assure suitable wildlife habitat have resulted
in the return of wild turkeys as a standard part of our native fauna.
The present-day success of the species is a prime example of a positive
role of regulated hunting of a popular game species. Ironically, a species
favored for sport hunting usually fares better because major investments
are made for their protection, including maintaining suitable habitat
conditions and tightly controlling illegal hunting. An additional feature
of focused attention on a game species is that investments are made in
conducting the scientific research necessary to understand the behavior
and ecology of the species in all seasons and under different environmental
to the color and excitement associated with wild turkeys, several centuries
of domestication have led to dramatic changes in other directions, resulting
in the turkeys that end up on most Thanksgiving tables. I. Lehr Brisbin
of the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, who is an expert in the field
of domestication, provides some insights into the history and variety
of the domestication of turkeys:
a wild species is subjected to domestication, several things can happen.
First, traits unsuitable for survival in the wild may become established
because of human care and protection. For example, in our modern domestic
Thanksgiving turkeys, the heavily muscled breast has made them clumsy
and heavy, making normal mating difficult. Most domestic turkey breeding
is now done by massive programs of artificial insemination.
trait that would make the birds highly vulnerable to predators in the
wild is the white color favored by agricultural producers. White turkeys
presumably are preferred because of the `cleaner' appearance, which in
the minds of some people translates to the meat on supermarket shelves.
Domestication also often results in a massive increase in the diversity
of sizes, shapes, colors, and even behavior that emerge from a wild ancestor
of uniform appearance. Among domesticated turkeys, a vast array of little-known
breeds exists, with names such as the Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Royal
Palm, and Unimproved (naturally mating) Bronze, which is the natural color.
natural levels of the world's biodiversity is valued by ecologists, wildlife
biologists, and conservationists. But few scientists in these fields have
stopped to consider that some important components of biodiversity are
embodied in such arrays of diverse domesticated breeds. Unfortunately,
many early breeds of domestic turkeys that were developed for and adapted
to early pioneer lifestyles and small family farmsteads have reached a
critical stage of endangerment. Many have been replaced by the favored
white turkey of large, factory-style farming operations."
So as Thanksgiving
approaches once again, more wild turkeys roam the woods and fields of
America than have done so since colonial times. And more turkeys will
probably end up on dinner tables than ever before. The irony that the
former will represent a relatively small proportion of the latter should
not keep us from enjoying both.
you have an environmental question or comment, email