It’s the time of year when many have turkey on the brain. Thanksgiving is the apex, but the big bird is often on the menu for other holidays as well. I prefer rib roast for Christmas, but the grand old turkey is never a bad choice this time of year.
Today’s domestic supermarket bird is vastly different from the wild Merriam’s turkey that wanders the Rocky Mountains and much of the West. The domestic bird’s evolution into a breast-meat factory was illustrated in a recent column by Tim Carman, a food writer at the Washington Post, in which he describes the now abandoned tradition of turkey drives.
Before refrigeration, birds had to be driven in large flocks to the slaughterhouse. When refrigeration ended the necessity of such drives, the tradition lived on in some small towns until the 1970s as the kind of food festival that remains popular in places where connections between eaters and farmers are more direct.
The turkey drive finally died when the birds were no longer able to complete difficult tasks, such as locomotion. The modern broad-breasted white, Carman wrote, is so top heavy it can barely walk.
Modern domestic turkeys can’t carry themselves across a pen, much less lead a parade.
There’s a photo of one of those early 20th century drives that ran with Carman’s story, and those birds look nothing like the Morganna-inspired white beasts of the modern turkey farm. In fact, they look a lot like those Merriam’s turkeys you might see out back, making a mess of the lawn.
Those early slaughterhouse-bound birds are dark feathered and slender at the chest. If you roasted one for holiday dinner and invited too many white-meat aficionados, there might be fisticuffs over the paltry scraps of breast meat.
Those turkey-drive birds weren’t that far removed from their wild cousins. In nature, these ground-dwelling birds usually fly just twice a day: down from the roosting tree in the morning, and up again in the evening. Consequently, wild turkeys don’t need much muscle on their chests.
Ostriches, which are incapable of flight, have virtually no breast meat. That ostrich burger you ate at the exotic-game cafe was ground leg meat, which these birds have in abundance.
The modern supermarket turkey has so much breast meat it’s no better at flying than walking. Weight is a good thing if you’re selling turkeys by the pound, but not so much if you need to fly. On this I was reminded of a classic episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati,” a 1970s television sitcom. In it, bumbling radio station manager Arthur Carlson decides dropping live turkeys from a helicopter over a shopping mall would be a great holiday promotion. Equally incompetent news director Les Nessman describes the ensuing carnage, reporting that the plummeting birds hit the pavement like “sacks of wet cement.”
Look it up on YouTube, or check the link on my website. It’s worth a view.
Wild turkeys represent one of the brightest success stories in the history of the North American Model of wildlife management. A century ago, turkey numbers had plummeted to the point many feared they were headed for extinction.
Wildlife managers first tried raising turkeys in hatcheries to release in the wild, but that didn’t go so well. The tame birds were easy marks for predators.
Fortunately, wild birds did much better when they were captured and released into turkey-free habitat. Estimates now put the U.S. wild turkey population at more than 7 million. There are Merriam’s all over the West, and other subspecies are thriving as well. In some places, the big birds are so numerous they’re becoming a nuisance.
Ask any wildlife manager and I bet they’ll agree there’s no better sign of success than when your formerly endangered restoration project graduates to annoying-pest status.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.