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A Black Turkey, also called the Spanish Black, the Dutch Black, or the Norfolk Black (photo by Mike Walters)

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. 

Spanish fashion: this is an unusually colorful outfit for Spain during that era.

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.

A Bronze Standard turkey

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.

A Buff Turkey in Australia (courtesy of S. Lim)

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….”

The Bourbon Red Turkey

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…

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