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In our ongoing exploration of underworld gods, we have come across all sorts of animal divinities. The ultra-modern Japanese still venerate Namazu a vast chthonic catfish god. Contemporary Inuits worship Sedna, walrus/cetacean goddess of the cold depths. The rational Greeks imagined a great three-headed dog guarding Tartarus. There are so many giant serpents from different cultures that they create an entire subset of underworld gods: some of these snake beings are bigger than the world and longer than the oceans. They range from kind creators like Nuwa to monsters like the Midgard serpent to indescribable cosmic forces like the rainbow serpent. There are dark swans and mystery animals, but where in this worldwide pantheon/bestiary are my favorite birds? Where are the turkey gods?
Well, turkeys are from the Americas, they were sacred to the original inhabitants (and have been discovered buried alongside humans with ceremonial pomp–or even by themselves on altars). However the Americas were swept by a great wave of diseases which was followed by waves of European colonizers. When the Native Americans were killed by plague or assimilated by Europeans, many of their deities vanished. The Spaniards were delighted to find domesticated turkeys in the ruins of the Aztec empire and they shipped them off to Spain as farm animals (whereas it seems they may have been originally domesticated for their feathers).
However even now we know a little bit about important Aztec turkey deities. Chalchiuhtotolin, “Precious Night Turkey” was a god of plague who ruled thirteen days of the Aztec calendar from 1 Water to 13 Crocodile (the thirteen preceding days were in fact ruled by Xolotl, hapless god of misfortune, who was instrumental in the creation of humankind). Little is known concerning Chalchiuhtotolin, except that he was magnificent and terrible to behold. As a plague god he holds a somewhat ironic place in Aztec cosmology (since the Aztecs were defeated and destroyed more directly by smallpox then by Cortes). It is theorized that Chalchiuhtotolin was an animal aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the central gods of Aztec mythology (who was more famous in his ferocious manifestation as a jaguar). Tezcatlipoca was one of the four cardinal gods of direction, ruling the North (which was a realm of darkness and sorcery to the Mesoamericans). Tezcatlipoca was based on earlier Mayan and Olmec divinities. One of his legs was missing, since he sacrificed it to the crocodilian earthmonster called Cipactli in order to fashion the world. A god of night, wind, obsidian, warriors, and slaves, Tezcatlipoca was eternally opposed by the Mayan hero god Quetzalcoatl, “the Feathered Serpent”, a sky god, and lord of the West. A great deal of Aztec mythology including the story of the creation of this world (not to mention the creation and destruction of many others) involves the fractious push-and-pull rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.
My posts about animals are based on personal favorites but I have also tried to choose categories of animals in a manner which reveals something larger about zoology and taxonomy. You have probably noticed that my featured creatures are not arbitrary but are arranged taxonomically according to Linnaean hierarchy in the manner which follows:
- Phlylum: Mollusca
- Class: Mammalia (mammals)
- Order: Siluriformes (catfish)
- Suborder: Serpentes (serpents)
- Genus: Meleagris (turkeys)
I have not written about a family yet because I was leaving myself some room for the future (feel free to make suggestions). Additionally, I have only written glancingly of kingdoms or domains because those overarching categories are far too large and baffling for me to deal with meaningfully (although I would probably choose the domain “bacteria” if I had limitless time, resources and a great deal more knowledge and intelligence). The missing bottom category of species is always applicable to whatever the featured species of the day is (or, in a pinch, to Homo sapiens, the dark meddlesome, magnificent species behind history, art, politics and other non-animal, non-plant topics over there in the category cloud).
Not only have I have chased the representative members of my chosen taxonomic categories through art, mythology, and anecdote, I have also tried to write as cogently as I am able about their behavior, biology, and morphology (biologists and morphologists are no doubt laughing into their hands right now, but, hey, you guys are not always the most compelling or comprehensible writers, so give me a break). Also, I understand that traditional hierarchy is coming to be re-assessed in light of new genetic evidence and the innovative ideas of cladistics: maybe my categories were already hidebound to start.
I mention all of this because I am beginning to feel pinched by some of my categories. I could write about a different obscure catfish, or dig up a new catfish recipe but is that really what people want? I still have a few more turkey stories to write and no doubt more information will come to me (probably around Thanksgiving), but I am running out of things to say about my favorite bird. Should I disloyally choose a new genus to pursue. Do you want to hear more about tiny obscure catfish? I could drop it all and move to entirely new topics, but I don’t feel right about that yet. Maybe some reorganization is needed when I launch the redesigned version of Ferrebeekeeper in the near future.
Any insight or feedback would be appreciated. I’m sorry for the informal first person tone of this post but I am traveling today and don’t have time to research an appropriate column. Also catfish and turkey fans should not give up yet, I still have a handful of ideas left about those magnificent creatures (not to mention a stirring Siluriforme overview).
Regular readers know how much I esteem turkeys. Unfortunately I worry that my writings are not winning additional admirers for these astonishing birds. It is time to play a trump card and reveal one of the great bizarre strengths of turkeys. They are capable of virgin birth.
Before you spring up in alarm and start shouting, allow me to present a miniature biology lesson. Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction. Some female organisms are capable of producing an ovum which develops into a new individual without being fertilized by a male gamete. In these cases, the mother contributes her genetic material to the offspring. Although natural parthenogenesis is frequently observed in rotifers, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and flatworms, this method of reproduction is much less common among vertebrates. However a few species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles are known to reproduce via parthenogenesis (movie-goers may recall that this happened to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.) The turkey is very unusual in being a bird which can reproduce through this means (or at least we think it is unusual—perhaps parthenogenesis is more common among birds then we realize but we just don’t know about it except in settings like farms where it becomes obvious). Chickens can also produce self-fertilized eggs but they almost never develop beyond embryonic stages, whereas female turkeys can and frequently do produce living offspring which lack fathers.
Parthenogenesis occurs in turkeys through the doubling of haploid cells. Biologists have discovered that the rate at which this occurs can be increased by selective breeding. Poults produced by parthenogenesis are capable of growing into healthy viable toms indistinguishable from toms with more traditional parentage. You will note that I wrote “toms”—all turkeys conceived via parthenogenesis were created from doubled haploids and are are homogametic. Consequently they are all all male. (This will leave mammal enthusiasts scratching their heads–since female mammals are homogametic and have two x chromosomes. However for birds and for some reptiles, males have two Z chromosomes and thus are the homogametic sex. In such species, females have one Z and one W chromosome and are the heterogametic sex.)
Mammals do not naturally utilize parthenogenesis as a method of reproduction. Certain portions of mammalian genes consist of imprinted regions where portions of genetic data from one parent or the other are inactivated. Mammals born of parthenogenesis must therefore overcome the developmental abnormalities caused by having two sets of maternally imprinted genes. In normal circumstances this is impossible and embryos created by parthenogenesis are spontaneously rejected from the womb. Biology researchers have now found ways to surmount such obstacles and a fatherless female mouse was successfully created in Tokyo in 2004. With genetic tinkering, human parthenogenesis is also biologically feasible. Before his research was discredited and he was dismissed from his position, the South Korean (mad?) scientist Hwang Woo-Suk unknowingly created human embryos via parthenogenesis. To quote a news article by Chris Williams, “In the course of research, which culminated with false claims that stem cells had been extracted from a cloned human embryo, Hwang’s team succeeded in extracting cells from eggs that had undergone parthenogenesis… The ability to extract embryonic stem cells produced by parthenogenesis means they will be genetically identical to the egg donor. The upshot is a supply of therapeutic cells for women which won’t be rejected by their immune system, without the need for cloning.”
All of which is fascinating to biology researchers (and those who would seek greatly prolonged life via biogenetic technologies), however it seems that in nature, the turkey is the most complicated creature capable of virgin birth.
It has been a long time since I put up a turkey post. In a way this is appropriate, since people other than hunters and farmers usually only think about the majestic fowl around holiday time when the sharp axe comes out (or–more likely—when one wanders over to Krogers to check out the price of Butterballs). Meanwhile live turkeys have been slogging away through the long winter. For farm turkeys this has meant dull days perched in dark coops huddled together for warmth while living on daily water and grain hand-outs from the farmer. For wild turkeys the winter is more like a Russian war novel. The wind, ice, and snow are enlivened by desperate hunger and by fear of omnipresent predators stalking through the bare trees of the frozen forests. The cold nights are filled with the howl of the wind and the coyotes while the days are filled with desperately scraping the dead ground for remnants of food.
But that was winter–spring is here, and with it, mating season. This time of year highlights one of the signature features of turkeys wild and domestic—gobbling. In fact today’s post is really an auditory one. Here is a movie of a Tom turkey gobbling!
The gobble is rightfully the most famous turkey vocalization. It is similar in nature to the humpback’s song or the deafening yodel of the siamang: a magnificent declaration of self which proclaims dominance and health to females. This ululating yodel alerts all nearby hens to the fact that an alpha male tom turkey is in the area and is at the top of his game (it also lets rival males know where to go for a fight and hunters where to go for a meal, so it is a true and heartfelt declaration of bravery and lust on the part of the issuer).
Gobbles are hardly the only turkey vocalizations. Turkeys both wild and domestic are extremely garrulous characters and produce many different calls for a variety of reasons. Here is a list of the more common turkey vocabulary from the national Wild Turkey Federation. By using a variety of tools and the full range of the human voice a tiny number of truly expert hunters can produce most of these noises, however turkeys are clever enough that they don’t usually fall for such guile.
We’ll jump right into this continuation of last week’s two-part post with the the Black Turkey, which was a European variety of domesticated turkey. The original Spanish conquistadors found that the Aztecs had domesticated a subspecies of wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo. The ravenous Spaniards carried some of these off (along with every single valuable thing they could find) and took them back to Spain.
In accordance with Spanish fashion, the new turkey farmers of the old world selectively bred for all black feathers. The black turkeys spread first to the Netherlands (then under Spanish control) and ultimately throughout Europe.
When English colonists arrived in the New England, they brought black turkeys with them and crossed the European domestic birds with the wild turkeys they found in the forest. The resulting variety had beautiful dark brown feathers with green and copper sheen. These turkeys were called Bronze turkeys and the standard bronze turkey was the most common turkey throughout most of America’s history.
In their turkey breeding experiments, the colonists also obtained Buff turkeys, one of the original breeds of domestic turkeys in the United States. It was a medium sized bird with lovely dun/beige colored feathers. Unfortunately, due to the ascendancy of larger turkeys, the breed went extinct in 1915. But all was not lost: to quote The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy “Interest in creating a buff colored turkey returned once again the 1940’s. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Millville initiated a program to develop a small to medium size market turkey. This is one of the few instances where a new variety was developed in a methodical manner….”
In the early 1800’s a Kentucky poultry farmer named J. F. Barbee crossed Buff, Bronze, and White Holland Turkeys to obtain a pretty roan colored turkey with white wing and tail feathers and light under-feathers. Unfortunately Barbee christened his new breed as “Bourbon Butternuts” and the turkeys did not sell at all. Only later when he renamed the bird “Bourbon reds” did they become popular. Even old-timey Americans were slaves to marketing! The Bourbon red turkey had fallen from favor but lately the breed has become a mainstay of the organic back-yard turkey movement.
That concludes my overview of turkey breeds. I’m sorry I told it out of order, but hopefully you have pieced together the strange tale of Aztecs, Spaniards, 19th century showmen, and factory farms. It is curious how some breeds died out while others burgeoned in accordance to the strange ebb and flow of fashion and taste. It raises curious moral quandaries about the nature of farming. Livestock breeds are created by humans for human convenience and whim. If we don’t eat our farm animals, they vanish (for it is the rare farmer who keeps turkeys purely as a hobby). Isn’t it preferable for these creatures to exist and reproduce even if destiny means that they end their lives as the object of our great annual feast? Perhaps it is best to return to the mindset of the first turkey farmers, the mighty Aztecs, who understood ceremonial annual sacrifice and made it a cornerstone of their culture. Look around you this November and see big proud domestic turkeys staring at you from decorations, television shows, brand labels, and cartoons everywhere. Now think about the red step pyramid, the howling augur, and the flint knife–for you must consume domestic turkeys, the sacred bird of our harvest feast, in order that they may live on. I, for one, am up to such a task! And in addition to looking forward to Thursday dinner, I am eager to see what new varieties of domestic turkeys crop up in this coming century…
Thanksgiving is next week! I have already bought a big aluminum platter and some oven bags for the great feast and my hunger is growing sharp…. In the mean time though, I continue to salute the majestic turkey bird–the glorious figure the whole holiday focuses around (albeit in an uncomfortably primitive sacrificed-and-devoured kind of way).
Today’s ambiguously conceived tribute takes the form of a gallery of turkey mascots and logos. It seems quite a lot of them are “Turkey Trot” promotions (apparently that’s some sort of Thanksgiving Day ceremonial run), processed food advertisements, whiskey labels, or creepy sports mascots. In this last category, pride of place certainly belongs to the HokieBird, the fighting turkey mascot of Virginia Tech, my sister’s alma mater. Here he is, first in a formal logo, then below that in a portrait, and finally in a candid shot, horsing around on the sidelines:
I’m never sure how to feel about Virginia Tech (sad, angry, confused, affectionate?) but I love the mascot and I salute their bold choice! Here are some other Turkey Mascots that didn’t necessarily work out as well and then some anonymous turkey costumes.
The following are food labels/brands. I really like the first one—a turkey trying desperately to sell tofu substitute:
I know I mentioned wild turkey before but I had to include it again because of the dazzling realism.
Here are some random Turkey images–cartoons, and logos from all sorts of different sources (especially “turkey trot” races around the country):
I’m closing this grabbag of images with a picture of the national bird of the United States getting angry and jockeying for pride of place with the turkey. Next week I’ll finish listing the different strains of domestic turkey and write some closing thoughts about this national obsession.
It has been a long time since we had any posts related to turkeys! Now that it’s November again, it is definitely time to revisit those magnificent birds. A good place to start is by examining different varieties of domestic turkeys. Since there are many different breeds, I’ll make this the first half of a two-part post.
The majority of turkeys available at the supermarket are Broad Breasted White turkeys, a non-standardized commercial strain noted for quickly putting on weight. The white feathers also serve a practical purpose by making it difficult for market-goers to spot an imperfectly plucked turkey. These large birds are raised in factory farms and their diminished existence means that they do not attain the cunning which broader life experience brings to free-range fowl. Nevertheless, they are not nearly as dim as they are made out to be by popular myth.
The turkeys we raised on the farm when I was a child were Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys which are also a non-standardized breed noted for quick weight gain. Neither the Broad-Breasted Bronze nor the Broad-Breasted White turkeys are capable of reproduction without the aid of artificial insemination. My family obtained our turkeys as little poults through the mail and the birds’ later inability to have offspring was rather pathetic. Additionally our pet turkeys tended to develop health complications due to their immense and ungainly size. Other breeds of turkeys from the past did not have these issues. They were kept by homeowners and farmers as small rafters (that’s the proper term for a group of turkeys) or as individuals. Since turkeys are formidable hunters capable of eating a vast quantity of insects, the birds, like other domestic fowl, served as pest control before commercial poisons became inexpensive. Abraham Lincoln had a pet turkey “Tom” who tended to the white house lawn.
The American Poultry Association recognizes eight breeds of domestic turkeys. These breeds were variously popular in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries but became largely moribund during the late twentieth century with the rise of the Broad-Breasted white. Most varieties nearly went extinct– however a recent fad for heritage turkeys during the holidays (and a growing trend for backyard poultry) has created a niche market for these historical turkeys.
Here is the first half of a gallery of turkey breeds:
The Royal Palm was not a meat bird but was bred for selected ornamental characteristics. The toms are usually less aggressive than other male turkeys and the females are said to make solicitous and conscientious mothers.
The American Turkey Association first recognized the Slate turkey in 1874. The turkey can range from pale gray (known as lavender) to a dark charcoal color.
To quote the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Narragansett color pattern contains black, gray, tan, and white. Its pattern is similar to that of the Bronze, with steel gray or dull black replacing the coppery bronze…. Narragansett turkeys have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production, and excellent meat quality.”
The White Holland turkey was the most popular table turkey during the early twentieth century largely because the pale pin feathers made the dressed carcass look neater. The White Holland turkey had a smaller body than the Large Breasted White Turkey but its head was more colorful, its beard was black and its legs were longer. This breed has primarily disappeared due to being bred into the Large Breasted White Turkey population.
That’s enough Turkey Breeds for one day, but don’t worry I will finish the second portion of this list before turkey day gets here!
Turkeys have been widespread and successful since the early Miocene (23 million years ago). Since their robust bones fossilize quite well, a number of extinct turkeys are known to paleo-ornithologists (including two genera which do not exist today, the “Rhegminornis” and “Proagriocharis”).
The best known of these vanished turkeys is the Californian Turkey, Meleagris californica, which died out about ten to twelve thousand years ago as the ice ages ended and human settlements became common. The Californian turkey had a shorter beak and a stockier build than contemporary turkeys but it was a similar creature and probably shared many of the habits and vocalizations familiar to us. Its remains have been discovered profusely in the tar pits of southern California, where it must have been preyed on by the great carnivores of that Pleistocene. Californian turkey bones have also been found in camp middens of ice age humans, whose love of succulent turkey dinners may have combined with climate change to usher the poor birds to extinction.
I find mascots fascinating (and a bit disturbing). Here are some of my favorite weird mascots: