Saturday, 17 November 2012

Galliformes 13: Turkeys, domestic and wild

Stag (male) turkey displaying
A survey of all the galliform birds that can be encountered in the UK would be incomplete without covering the two domesticated species that just about everyone except vegetarians will eat each year, the turkey and the chicken. I will cover chickens (which have a long and complex cultural as well as culinary history) next week, but this week I will look at a bird that is going to feature in a lot of peoples meals in the next month or so.

One of the first odd things about turkeys is their name. Why should a bird native to North America be named after a country on the other side of the world? The turkey was first domesticated in Mexico, around 2000 years ago. Not long after, turkeys were also domesticated separately in the South West from their own local wild birds. When the Spanish arrived, turkeys were sent back to Spain, but owing to the perpetually bad relations between Spain and England at that time did not pass immediately to the British, but eventually arrived in England via Ottoman Turkey, hence the name. The birds were introduced to England by William Strickland, whose coat of arms includes a "turkey-cock in his pride proper”. Strickland later became a prominent Puritan MP, which may explain why when they emigrated to what was then the Colony of Virginia the Pilgrim Fathers took with them British turkeys.

Modern farming methods have not been kind to the turkey. The premium on large size has resulted in the main commercial breeds growing so huge that the males (‘stags’ in the UK, ‘toms’ in the US) are not capable of mating, so they are produced by artificial insemination. More normal appearing breeds are still in existence, and command a premium price, but they are less efficient at converting feed into meet.
Commercial white turkeys
There are numerous breeds of domesticated turkey found today around the world, with very different colours and sizes. White turkeys are often preferred commercially, as they look better after plucking than the darker breeds. Commercial production today involves careful manipulation of light and heating to ensure the birds grow as quickly as possible, and most are produced in barns with no natural light. In the UK these indoor birds are invariably white, with Norfolk Bronze or Norfolk Black being raised free range, either by commercial producers or smallholders. Indoor raised birds fed on a grain diet are usually blander than the more stronger flavoured outdoor breeds. Turkeys are quite omnivorous birds, and if given the opportunity will eat a lot of insects, snails and other invertebrates, which result in a more gamey flavour to the meat. Whether reared inside or outside though, turkey are killed at under a year old, whereas if left to themselves the hardier breeds at least could live to be 10.
Gould's Wild Turkey M.gallopavo
In the wild there are two species of turkey. The wild ancestor of the domestic turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, is found across the southern United States down to southern Mexico. Further south in the Yucatan peninsula, a second species is found, the Ocellated Turkey M. ocellata. Unlike their widespread northern relatives, Ocellated Turkeys have a very restricted range, and are classed by the IUCN as Near Threatened, with a total world population estimated at under 50,000 individuals and declining.

Ocellated Turkey M.ocellata
The North American species is a widely hunted gamebird, and was at one time threatened as a result. With appropriate close seasons and better management, the population has vastly increased, to an estimated 7 million birds, and they have spread even into urban areas. This causes some problems, as not only do they dig up lawns and make a mess, but a male turkey in a bad mood can sometimes be quite aggressive. For further information on the terror that can be a wild turkey, see here:

Next week, we finally reach an end to this series with one of the oldest domesticated birds in the world, the ordinary domestic chicken. It is a story of trade across Asia, cruel sports, an entire people being called chicken, insane looking birds and public health, so tune in next time!

(images from wikipedia)

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