“For my part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our Country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly....For the truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird and withal a true original Native of America...a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on”
Benjamin Franklin, 1774 in letter to his daughter regarding the choice of the eagle as the national bird of the United States – why he felt the turkey would have been a superior choice
Benjamin Franklin had the right idea, but obviously not everyone agreed. The turkey is a magnificent bird, loyal and brave. Fossil records place them in North and Central America over ten million years ago. They were initially domesticated by the Aztecs and natives of New Mexico and ranged over the entire U.S. and southern Canada. The Spanish explorers were so impressed with this beautiful and tasty bird, that they took some back home to Spain from Mexico in the 1500s. They selected for black feathering and over time the turkey increased its popularity throughout Europe. An excited female Black Spanish turkey has a way of spreading her tail feathers out in a fan, and holding herself proudly, reminding one of the flamenco dancers of Spain. Could it be that turkeys are fashion setters too? In the 1600's, the turkey was reintroduced to North America and crossed with the wild turkey. Selection over time resulted in standard breed turkeys with names such as the Spanish or Norfolk Black, Narragansett, Blue Slate, Bourbon Red, all with different colours and markings. These breeds would hatch out in the spring and after six months or so would be ready for market, coinciding with US Thanksgiving and Christmas.
|Jesse Throssel in Aldergrove with his turkeys|
Meanwhile, back in England a turkey known as the Sheffield Bronze, for the wild-type colour of the sheen on its feathers, was selected over generations for a heavier muscle in the breast area and improved hatchability. The breeder, Jesse Throssel, moved to Canada in 1926, and had some of his flock sent to his new home in BC. He developed a hatchery and was soon exporting eggs and poults throughout BC, Washington and Oregon. His Broad Breasted Bronze became the foundation of the modern turkey industry in North America. Over time, white birds were selected so that the pin feathers wouldn't be so noticeable. As the birds were selected for muscling, they became unable to breed naturally, relying on artificial insemination. Now 99% of the breeding stock, held by just three multinational companies – one in Ontario – are made up of only a few strains of Broad Breasted White turkeys – providing the basis for the nearly 300 million turkeys required to meet the demands in the US and Canada for our holiday feasts.
At the same time, the standard breeds, also known as heritage breeds, became slowly endangered as their numbers dwindled. In 1997, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), an organization that conserves rare breeds and genetic diversity in livestock, surveyed North American turkey populations to assess the genetic status of the breeds. They were very surprised to find that a number of the heritage turkey varieties including the Bronze, Narragansett and Slate were on the verge of extinction. For turkey growers, heritage birds hold important genetic traits such as disease resistance, critical to the turkey’s long-term health and survival. I have observed that although the Broad Breasted Bronze females can reproduce naturally and hatch out chicks, they have lost the ability to vocalize to their chicks, a trait that may be genetically linked.
Wild turkey numbers were also reduced because they were so easy to bait and hunt using corn. By the 1930s it is estimated that there were only 30,000 left in the wild of the US, and none in Canada whereas there used to be millions. Conservation efforts have brought back the wild turkey, and also have saved the standard breeds, now referred to as heritage breeds.
|Black Spanish males foraging in the Gulf Islands|
Scientists and dedicated enthusiasts have been central to these efforts. Margaret Thomson,of Salt Spring Island is one such person. There was a need for more rare breed turkeys, and she had looked into the work of the Domestic Fowl Trust while on a visit to England. This inspired her, so she contacted Rare Breeds Canada and found a source for heritage turkey eggs from Ontario. From an initial shipment of 48 eggs, 11 hatched. Another shipment resulted in one chick. That fall she went to Meadville Pennsylvania to attend a two day workshop on handling, selection, hatching and rearing heritage turkeys led by Frank Reese of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Now, six years later her flock has included Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, Blue Slate and recently Ridley Bronze, from the University of Saskatchewan. I purchased a breeding trio from Margaret five years ago, and now have a healthy flock of Black standard turkeys that forage for food all year and eat blackberries, thistle seeds, hawthorn berries, grapes, grass and even walnuts. You wouldn't believe how good a turkey tastes after it has eaten walnuts! They even prefer to roost at night in the walnut tree. They not only breed naturally, they also nest and brood their own young. Females will even help each other out and raise their young together. It's not unusual for a hen who has lost her poults to join in with another hen and serve as a type of nanny. By keeping these old breeds alive, we are ensuring that their valuable genetics are retained as a living gene bank for future generations.