Thanksgiving is turkey day, which means it's time for Surprising Facts About Turkeys!
Here at The Daily Green, we see so many ways to look at turkeys.
There's the "traditional" way to look at turkeys: As holiday food (though turkey wasn't a part of the Thanksgiving menu until the 1860s, and didn't dominate the holiday meal until after World War II thanks to you guessed it! marketing by the turkey industry).
There's the modern traditional way of looking at turkeys: Food from a factory farm (now that the average U.S. resident eats 17 pounds of turkey a year, about half of which is produced by three big companies Butterball, Jennie-O and Cargill).
There's the alternative traditional way to look at turkeys: Organic, locally grown, free range and heritage breed turkeys (which let you enjoy a traditional holiday meal without consuming the inhumanely raised, antibiotic-injected, pesticide-laden-feed-eating turkeys produced by modern farms).
Finally, there's the traditional traditional way to look at turkeys: Wild turkeys (which by now we all know were heralded by Benjamin Franklin as "much more respectable" than our chosen national symbol, the bald eagle).
Each of these views has, not surprisingly, its own organization: The National Turkey Federation for the $3.6 billion turkey industry, the Heritage Turkey Foundation for the heritage breeds, the National Wild Turkey Federation for turkey hunters (not for bourbon drinkers). Then there are organizations like Farm Sanctuary (which has rescued more than 1,000 turkeys since 1986) and the Humane Society of the U.S., which both raise awareness about the inhumane aspects of turkey "production" in an effort to clean up the industry or turn us all vegetarian. (If the latter viewpoint is yours, you won't be interested in this recipe for roasting a heritage turkey but you might want to check out these vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes and learn how to adopt a turkey.)
We've taken some stats from all these organizations to try to paint a portrait of today's turkey. Enjoy!
1. The Broad Breasted White Turkey is the bird sold in virtually every supermarket. About 247 million turkeys will be raised this year, with about half raised in just four states (Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and Missouri) and with about one in three of them eaten during the holiday season. Like all domesticated turkeys, the broad breasted white is a descendant of turkeys Cortez brought back to Europe from present-day Mexico in the 1500s. As with other factory farm-raised animals, many criticize the antibiotic usage, living conditions, waste handling and killing practices on turkey farms that resemble crowded airline hangars more than farms.
This year, more than 46 million turkeys will be killed just for Thanksgiving dinner. (Ready for the horror stories?) On factory farms, according to Farm Sanctuary, turkeys "frequently have the ends of their beaks and toes cut off without anesthesia practices know as debeaking and detoeing to prevent them from injuring one another as they are crowded by the thousands into dark, filthy warehouses." (But wait! There's more.) "Turkeys, along with other poultry, are not protected by the federal Humane Slaughter Act, and are frequently killed without first being stunned." Conditions at turkey hatcheries can also be brutal.
2. Many of the approximately 25,000 heritage breed turkeys raised each year are consumed around Thanksgiving. Heritage breeds of turkeys are basically anything but those supermarket Broad Breasted Whits; they include the Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Jersey Buff, Slate, Black Spanish, White Holland, Royal Palm, White Midget and Beltsville Small White all of which were bred for food before the Broad Breasted White came to dominate the market. To save heritage turkey breeds, people basically have to eat them; several breeds remain critically endangered, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, because there are few customers, breeders or both. The good news? Thanks to breakthroughs this year, Roger Mastrude, president of the Heritage Turkey Foundation, said he expects the availability of heritage breed turkeys to rapidly increase in the coming years after five years of "stagnation."
3. Turkey does have L-tryptophan, but not enough to make you sleepy, since the amino acid only induces sleep when taken alone on an empty stomach. Turkey is, however, high in both Vitamin B6 and Vitamin B12. Oh, and conventionally raised turkeys also have arsenic, according to the Environmental Working Group. Why? Arsenic is found in one of the pesticides that poultry feed is often laced with.
4. Wild turkeys were nearly wiped out from the U.S. by overzealous hunters. By the 1920s, barely 30,000 remained. But now, through the efforts of hunters (along with conservationists and wildlife agencies), there are 7 million wild turkeys found in every state but Alaska (even Hawaii, though they aren't native to the Pacific islands). Franklin wrote of the native turkey: "He is... though a little vain & silly, 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." Turkeys have proved their resiliency in the face of gunfire.
5. A Broad Breasted White turkey will grow to a weight of 35 pounds in just 19 weeks, while heritage breeds may take one-third to two-thirds longer on a farm. (Given the best conditions, turkeys could live up to 12 years.) The average supermarket turkey today is 57% heavier than its 1965 counterpart, thanks to selective breeding that makes toms breasts bigger, which means more meat on the dinner table but also "crippling foot and leg problems" on the farm and a complete reliance on artificial insemination (those toms have such big breasts they can't mount hens), according to Farm Sanctuary.
6. Turkeys recognize each other by their unique voices and 20 distinct vocalizations, according to Farm Sanctuary, and they communicate emotions by changing the color of their skins and necks. (If a tom's snood turns bright red, he's either mad or turned on... and if you don't know what a snood is, you should probably just steer clear of toms in the first place.)
7. Turkey hunting is the second most popular hunting sport behind deer hunting, but few people eat wild turkeys on Thanksgiving. Even hunting groups that hand out turkeys to the needy for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners buy them frozen from the supermarket, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation. The main hunting season is in the Spring, when hunters attract toms by imitating the calls of the hens during mating season. ("When you can get a turkey to do that, it's the complete opposite of how they do it," said Brent Lawrence of the National Wild Turkey Federation. "Normally the toms will get in a field and gobble and hens will hear them and go to breed. You're going against nature to seduce them. In Fall they don't really respond.")
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