TURKEYS ARE SAFE AGAIN

by Whit Gibbons


November 21, 2004


American 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.

The nonmigratory 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 rarity.

But today 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 conditions.

In contrast 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:

"When 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.

"Another 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.

"Maintaining 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.



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