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Traditional Turkeys Are Disappearing Breed

On November 22, Americans observe Thanksgiving, an iconic harvest festival with roots in the nation's 17th-century settlement by European colonists.

Roasted turkey is the traditional centerpiece. But the breeds of turkey which were on the table in early America have nearly disappeared, replaced by a domesticated bird that is bigger, faster-growing and cheaper to raise.

Disappearing breed

Around the world, many traditional livestock breeds are disappearing as industrial meat production takes over from small producers. But some are trying to preserve the old varieties as insurance against an uncertain future.

A sprinkle of corn, and Rachel Summers' turkeys come running. She raises a small flock of a breed called Standard Bronze at Crowfoot Farm, about an hour from Washington.

These are birds with history, Summers says. "They are what you would have found in colonial barnyards."

And you'll find them today in re-creations of those 17th and 18th-century barnyards, like the ones here at Claude Moore Colonial Farm outside Washington, where workers in period costumes are chopping wood for the fire.

Summers started volunteering at the farm when she was just 11. It was here, she says, she grew to love and appreciate these uncommon birds.

"When I started learning more about their history and their place in the world now, I realized how rare they are and how important it is to preserve them," Summers says.

Julie Long, a turkey researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says today's commercial birds were bred for size, then crossed with white-feathered varieties to produce unblemished skin.

"The heritage breeds are at risk simply because they are not being used commercially," Long says. "Those birds became very popular in about the [19]50s and just took over the market at that point."

Efficiency trumps diversity

Heritage breeds nearly disappeared. Today there are fewer than 10,000 Standard Bronze turkeys left, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Local livestock breeds are threatened in many parts of the world. One reason is because efficiency is trumping diversity in order to meet the growing demand for animal protein.

But Long says it would be a mistake to lose the heritage breeds.

"It's best to keep these around, sort of as an insurance policy," Long added. "You may never need those genetics. But if you do and they're gone, then you're out of luck."

Genetic insurance policy

That genetic "insurance policy" could provide tolerance for harsher environments brought on by climate change. Or resistance to new diseases. Or better ability to forage for themselves as the cost of commercial feed goes up.

One key to saving these rare breeds, experts say, may be found in the kitchen. John Critchley, executive chef of Urbana Restaurant in downtown Washington, prefers heritage birds to the standard supermarket variety.

"To me it has a better mouthfeel," says Critchley. "It has a richer taste, a more buttery finish to it."

A growing number of chefs and consumers are seeking out flavors they say have been lost in modern agriculture.

Sales of heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving are up. Rachel Summers hopes this niche market will help preserve not just the flavor, but all the other useful traits of these heritage birds.

"I'm not just raising these turkeys to sell for Thanksgiving," said Summers. "I want to have them be available as a resource to the world, if needed. Just our few turkeys. We're just preserving a little piece of that here on our little farm."

Just as Thanksgiving is about tradition, heritage turkeys are about keeping tradition alive.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.