Animal Tales: The all-American bird

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Science News  |  Nov. 22, 2002 at 12:27 PM
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One of the most famous Thanksgiving Day episodes on television, "Turkeys Away," also considered the most famous episode of the 1980s CBS sitcom, "WKRP in Cincinnati," had the radio station fling 20 live domestic turkeys from an airplane as a holiday promotion.

What WKRP station manager Arthur Carlson and newsman Les Nessman did not know, however, was domestic turkeys are kept in barns and fed large amounts of grain so they can grow to 30 pounds or more, which makes them too heavy to fly.

Others have made the same mistake. According to the "WKRP in Cincinnati" Web site's fact and trivia page (

"The 'turkey drop' was something of a radio-business legend even before this episode was made, but there were and still are conflicting stories as to where it happened. It is often claimed that it happened at WQXI in Atlanta. On the other hand, a 1979 report in Advertising Age magazine said it was done by a radio station in Dallas."

According to Jared Felkins, of the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgewood, S.C., wild turkeys run about 18 to 20 pounds on average. They also "can fly short distances up to two miles and have been clocked at 55 miles per hour, but they prefer to run," he told United Press International's Animal Tales.

Although similar in some aspects, the wild turkey is as distant from the domestic breed as an athlete is from a couch potato.

Europeans found wild turkeys when they first landed in America. At the time, the birds lived all over North America except in parts of Canada, New York and the Pacific Northwest.

Back even farther, when the Spanish entered Mexico in the 1500s, turkeys accounted for 10 percent of the meat in the diet of the Aztecs and other central Mexican people.

"The Pueblo Indians in the Southwest United States kept turkeys penned and fed and their feathers were used for blankets and did animal sacrifices but it's debated whether they were eaten," Karen Davis told UPI's Animal Tales. Davis runs United Poultry Concerns, an activist group in Machipongo, Va.

The Spanish took turkeys to Europe, where their descendants subsequently have been bred to bring out the broad-breast characteristics and much larger body size seen today, according to the NWTF.

"It's believed that the turkey was named because the Europeans thought the bird resembles the peacock, which they thought came from Turkey -- it has similar tail feathers that fan out like a peacock, but the turkey is really a relative of the pheasant," said Davis, author of "More than Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality."

Although domestic turkeys were penned and kept by farmers for centuries in the United States, the abundant turkeys found by Europeans in the wild in America had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century.

Overhunting and shooting masses of turkeys for no reason resulted in turkeys almost becoming extinct, Davis said.

"Even in the 20th century, turkeys have been dropped by high places -- even planes. Some survive and some don't, and some find it lots of fun," Davis said. "There's a carnival tradition that goes with turkeys, which we can see in the language -- a turkey means a flop or a failure, it's a symbol of scorn and gobbledygook describes government language impossible to understand."

"There were about 30,000 wild turkeys by the end of the 19th century but hunting regulations and seasons, plus relocation projects for the birds were instituted," Felkins said. "In 1973, when the NWTF was founded to continue these efforts, there were about 1.3 million turkeys and about 1.5 million turkey hunters. Today there are 5.6 million wild turkeys and 2.6 million turkey hunters."

Since 1985, the NWTF has spent $168 million on 22,000 projects to benefit wild turkeys.

"Turkeys are docile, gentle birds but they keep to themselves and run from humans. They're most vulnerable when they are small as poults when raccoons, coyotes, hawks and owls are predators," Felkins said. "They have good hearing and keen eyesight and their field of vision is about 270 degrees, making it hard for hunters."

A wild turkey is an intelligent, alert animal, built for speed and survival. Its constant state of caution makes it one of the toughest game animals in the world to hunt or even photograph, according to the NWTF.

"Even turkeys with a wild genetic background, but raised in a pen, will cease to exist in nature. The few that initially survive will generally do nothing to expand their range and eventually will perish," according to the NWTF Web site.

In the wild, a female turkey, or hen, will lay 12 to 20 eggs, usually in a tree stump or protected nest near a grassy area, a water source and trees where turkeys roost at night.

Turkeys also forage in agricultural areas in the fall and spring. They eat mostly waste grains, wild plants, insects and young grasses.

"On farms, a turkey will lay 80 to 100 eggs and after a diet of 80 pounds of corn and soybeans. A tom (male turkey) will weigh up to 30 pounds once it's on its way to the dinner table," Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman of the National Turkey Federation, told UPI's Animal Tales. "The live turkey that is pardoned by the president before Thanksgiving is a older bird and has weighed in 45-pound range."

Although turkey is low in fat and high in protein, the selective breeding, feeding and sedentary lifestyle results in turkeys falling over when walking.

"After World War II, there was an intense effort aided by selective breeding to raise and grow turkeys with lots of flesh, the turkeys were locked up indoors, were not allowed to exercise and fed a lot," Davis said. "This causes high stress on their heart and skeleton and they get gout, arthritis, diabetes and heart problems."

A 16-week-old turkey is called a fryer. A 5- to 7-month-old turkey is called a young roaster and a yearling is a year old. Any turkey 15 months or older is called lunch or dinner. In the wild, a turkey can live to about three to four years.

According to the NTF, 45 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving, 22 million turkeys are eaten each Christmas and 19 million each Easter. However, only 30 percent of turkey consumption is in the form of whole turkey. The rest is in the form of franks and other deli items.

Thanksgiving is called the most American of holidays and the turkey is the only breed of poultry native to the Western Hemisphere -- but Americans do not eat the most turkey.

Israel tops the list with 29 pounds per capita in 2001, followed by 17.5 pounds in the United States, 14.5 pounds in France, 12 pounds in Italy and 11 pounds in the United Kingdom, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At one time, the turkey and the bald eagle were each considered as the national symbol of America. In a well-reported story, Benjamin Franklin preferred the noble wild turkey as the nation's official bird.

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