The Magazine

America's Bird

The turkey, in love and war.

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By EMILY YOFFE
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Like another abundant species, the buffalo, wild turkeys were so prodigiously hunted, and their habitat so widely destroyed, that their population began plunging almost immediately after European settlement. By the 1880s, there were predictions that the wild turkey would soon join the dodo. But 20th-century efforts have saved the wild bird, and it is now estimated that seven million turkeys roam the continental United States. (I can attest to their comeback, having seen a flock in the Maine woods this summer, and one in Washington's Rock Creek Park this fall.)

But when Smith describes the modern commercial history of the domesticated turkey, one wonders if the birds don't sometimes wish they had just disappeared. The bird that is the focus of our modern feast is a grotesque that defies the principles of natural selection. By the 1930s, in response to consumer desires, breeders began producing crosses that had mountainous flesh on their breasts. One of these new breeds was even named "Bronze Mae West." By the 1950s, these broad-breasted turkeys had become the commercial standard. But they were so out of proportion that they could barely stand, and were completely unable to mate. They exclusively reproduce through artificial insemination-although Smith does not say if the deed is done with a turkey baster. The image of these creatures seems like a warning to Americans who consume them; does that fate await us if we get ever more corpulent?

Smith vividly describes the short, unhappy life of the commercial bird. Within days of hatching it is debeaked, desnooded, and de-toed-to curb their ability to injure each other under conditions of "intense confinement." The birds are raised in groups of up to 10,000 in windowless barns that are constantly lit to encourage the birds to eat. About four months later, Smith writes, they are "shackled upside down on an assembly line; then the turkeys are stunned by submerging their heads and necks in a bath of electrified water."

You can only read this chapter with the thought that maybe this is the year to try Tofurkey. But the trends are not going the turkeys' way. In 1970, per capita turkey consumption was 8.1 pounds; by 2004 it was 17.4. And by the end of the evening this November 23rd, many of us will feel that we have eaten our annual allotment in a single meal.

Emily Yoffe is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.