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Okay!  I haven’t been writing about turkeys as much as I should and Thanksgiving is on THURSDAY!  Where did the year go?  Fortunately, I still have some pictures left over from my trip home to my parents’ farm back in September. I have written about the geese and the renegade bourbon turkeys of the past, but this year my parents were passing by the grain store and there were poults for sale.  So now there is a whole new crop of turkeys running around again (which is good because they are my favorite barnyard creatures). Here  are some turkey photos and I show up in them too (both because of the shameful personal vanity which characterizes this era and because the lens on the front of my camera is cracked after an incident with some buttery fingers and an online fruit pie recipe).

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If you are curious what breed of turkeys these guys are, they are putatively broad-breasted bronze, but they don’t really look like the broad breasted bronze turkeys of my youth.  They are all lanky and tall!  These turkeys are pretty endearing and always come over to quizzically see what people are up to, but don’t be fooled–they are not completely domesticated and they are always getting in trouble.  Lately they have taken to escaping the poultry yard by walking way back into the woods where there is no fence and then coming back around the outside of the fence so they can stand in the road.  It isn’t a completely stupid strategy since there are all sorts of fat grasshoppers and suchlike tasty bus by the road, but people drive fast and carelessly and it takes a big bird some time to get off the ground.

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I don’t think my parents have any plans to eat these noble fowl as part of annual giving-of-thanks ritual sacrifice.  These are lucky ornamental (or pet?) turkeys, but they are flagrantly transgressing against America’s love affair with motor carriages, open roadways, and unsafe speeds. So maybe the turkeys are walking up the great pyramid towards sacrifice even if they are spared from the platter.  Hopefully they can learn road safety before it is too late, because I really like them.  Look at those droll facial expressions!

Turkey Sculpture (Jim Victor, butter)

Turkey Sculpture (Jim Victor, butter)

I really love turkeys!  Thanksgiving season is thus a happy time when the magnificent birds are celebrated in numerous forms throughout the American cultural landscape (although, admittedly, our national appreciation has a gastronomic thrust which can be somewhat inimical to individual turkeys).  Longtime visitors to this blog will recall turkey-themed posts from Novembers past–such as a long list of turkey mascots, a story concerning escapees from the family farm, a comprehensive overview of turkey breeds, and the shocking explanation of how turkeys are capable of virgin birth (!).  This year, we have already featured a discussion of the proud American tradition of turkey-themed characters in professional wrestling.  However since I am not a professional wrestler (yet) but rather a visual artist, I thought I would also present a gallery of turkey sculptures made from various miscellaneous materials.  The turkeys pictured here mostly come from a folk art tradition, so I could not always find the artist, date, and medium (although if you know such details regarding any of these works, I would love to hear about it), however I think you will agree that the sculptures are quite spectacular and diverse–just like America itself!  Look at the turkey at the top made entirely of butter!  Hopefully this little gallery will somewhat tide you over until Turkey Day next week, but, if not, don’t worry, Ferrebeekeeper will probably find material for another 2014 turkey post somewhere.  Additionally, you can click the turkey category link on the menu to the left to see a whole slew of turkey posts (at least this is true on the PC, who knows about you tablet people?). Gobble gobble!  Here is some weird art!

A metal turkey sculpture from Whidbey Island (via joyworks-shopgirl.blogspot.com)

A metal turkey sculpture from Whidbey Island (via joyworks-shopgirl.blogspot.com)

The same sculpture from a different angle

The same sculpture from a different angle

Turkey sculpture by Carlomagno Pedro Martinez

Turkey sculpture by Carlomagno Pedro Martinez

A turkey crafted from legos, chocolate, and silverware

A turkey crafted from legos, chocolate, and silverware

"Turkey" Artist unknown Photo by tim burlowski

“Turkey” Artist unknown Photo by tim burlowski

steampunk turkey watch by IckyDogCreations

steampunk turkey watch by IckyDogCreations

"Turkey Bot" Metal Assemblage Turkey Sculpture by Bruce Howard

“Turkey Bot” Metal Assemblage Turkey Sculpture by Bruce Howard

Turkey Hay Sculpture at Lookout Bar and Grill

Turkey Hay Sculpture at Lookout Bar and Grill

Thanksgiving Turkey Sculpture - Version 1 (design based on photo by Naomi Greenfield, Red Balloon Company) via globetwisting.blogspot.com

Thanksgiving Turkey Sculpture – Version 1
(design based on photo by Naomi Greenfield, Red Balloon Company) via globetwisting.blogspot.com

Turkey Sculpture (Philip Grausman, aluminum)

Turkey Sculpture (Philip Grausman, aluminum)

Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffed Soft Sculpture In Vintage Calico Prints Picture from Laurel Leaf Farm

Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffed Soft Sculpture In Vintage Calico Prints Picture from Laurel Leaf Farm

Jack (Philip Grausman, 2006)

Jack (Philip Grausman, 2006)

Folk Art Turkey Sculpture by Edith John (Navajo)

Folk Art Turkey Sculpture by Edith John (Navajo)

Sandstone Turkey (Ron Fedor)

Sandstone Turkey (Ron Fedor)

Pierced Turkey Sculpture Raymor Italy

Pierced Turkey Sculpture Raymor Italy

Big Turkey, Aneta, ND

Big Turkey, Aneta, ND

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?

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at http://www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

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).

Chalchiuhtotolin, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

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.

Before Thanksgiving, I posted a column about the confusing circumstances behind the names of turkeys. It turns out that the noble birds derive both their English and taxonomical names from being mistakenly identified as guinea fowl.  What I failed to explain in that column was how guinea fowl came by their scientific name “Meleagrides” which in turn became the genus name for American turkeys (Meleagris).

So where did guinea fowls get their name?  According to The Metamorphosis by Ovid, after Althaea, the Queen of Calydon, burned a magical log and thereby killed her son Meleager–an act which was bitter revenge for Mealeager killing another of her sons along with her brother in an intoxicated fight–she understandably became unhinged with grief (all of this is related in yesterday’s post if you are having trouble keeping up with the mayhem). Althaea then killed herself, leaving her daughters to cope with a complete family catastrophe.  Their distraught lamentation was so absolute and cacophonous that Artemis pitied them and transformed them into guinea fowl–which became sacred to her.  Of Meleager’s sisters, only Gorge and Deianara (who had their own sad destinies to pursue) were spared this fate.

Death of Meleager (Roman, 2nd century AD, marble)

So it turns out that turkeys are ultimately named after a heroic Greek spearman who was tragically destroyed by a bitter twist of fate after a drunken brawl (or by the wrath of Artemis, depending on how you look at mythological causality).  The paths of fate are strange indeed.

Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

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:

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.

Western Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) photo by David M. Dennis

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).

Thanks.

Lima Shovelnose Catfish (Sorubim lima)

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.

A New Mexico Whiptail (Aspidoscelis neomexicana). All New Mexico Whiptails are female. The entire species reproduces by parthenogenesis.

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.

This diagram from the BBC actually explains shark parthenogenesis but you get the idea.

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.

Domestic Tom Turkey Gobbling (Photo by WildImages--Charlie Summers)

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.

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…

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.

Broad-Breasted White Turkeys on a turkey farm

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.

Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys

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:

Royal Palm Turkeys

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.

A "Rafter" of Slate Turkeys

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.

A Narragansett Turkey Tom

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

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!

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