Where Do the Turkeys We Eat On Thanksgiving Come From?

Did turkey species used to roam all over the United States? If so, why do we eat one variety at Thanksgiving?
—Juan Tullis, Santa Fe, NM

That bird baking in your kitchen is a descendant of the wild turkey, one of two wild species on this continent domesticated by the Aztecs nearly a thousand years ago. The second, the ocellated turkey, heralds from southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.

When European settlers arrived, this country had an estimated 10 million wild turkeys, which roost in trees and have been clocked flying 55 miles an hour. Researchers have identified six genetically and geographically distinct subspecies in North America: eastern, Osceola (or Florida), Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Gould’s, and Mexican.

Due to overhunting and habitat destruction, fewer than 100,000 wild turkeys remained by the early 1900s. “We thought they might go the way of the passenger pigeon somewhere around the 1920s or so,” says Tom Hughes, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. Using money from hunting licenses and taxes on guns and ammunition, wildlife agencies and conservation organizations bolstered waning flocks, eventually boosting the population to seven million, which now supports a $4 billion hunting industry. “By and large we have restored the turkeys to all available habitat across the country,” says Hughes.

Ninety-nine percent of domesticated birds are broad-breasted whites, which reach a hefty weight of 32 pounds in 18 weeks. Heritage breeds (domesticated varieties that mate naturally, have a productive lifespan of about five years, and grow slowly) like Narragansett and Bourbon Red take longer to reach market weight but taste better and have more genetic diversity, says the Heritage Turkey Foundation. This Thanksgiving a turkey by another name may taste even more delicious.

Read more answers from Audubon magazine's Green Guru Susan Cosier.

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