Domesticated turkey

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Birds

iDomesticated turkey
Large White Turkey
Large White Turkey
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Meleagrididae
Genus: Meleagris

Meleagris gallopavo (modern)
Meleagris ocellata (historical)

The domesticated turkey is a large poultry bird raised for food. The modern domesticated turkey descends from the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), one of the two species of turkey (genus Meleagris); however, in the past the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) was also domesticated. Despite the name, turkeys have no relation to the country of Turkey and are instead native to North America.

The turkey is reared throughout temperate parts of the World, and is a popular form of poultry, partially because industrialised farming has made it very cheap for the amount of meat it produces. The female domesticated turkey is referred to as a hen and the chick as a poult. In the United States, the male is referred to as a tom, whilst in Europe, the male is a stag.

The great majority of domesticated turkeys have white feathers, although brown or bronze-feathered varieties are also raised.



Turkeys were taken to Europe shortly after their discovery in the New World. For this reason, many distinct turkey breeds were developed in Europe due to cross breeding. (e.g. Spanish Black, Royal Palm). Turkey was one of the many game species hunted by early American colonists and is thought to have been served at the first Thanksgiving, although there is no evidence to support this claim. Most likely, venison and/or duck was served at the first thanksgiving. Turkeys have been a staple on farms since their discovery in colonial times. In the midwestern United States in the mid to late 1800s, domestic turkeys were actually herded across the range in a manner similar to herding cattle. In the early 20th century, many advances were made in the breeding of turkeys resulting in varieties such as the Beltsville Small White.

Suggestions have been made that the Mexican Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata) might also be involved, but the plumage of domestic turkeys does not support this theory; in particular, the chest tuft of domestic turkeys is a clear indicator of descent from the Wild Turkey (the Ocellated Turkey does not have this tuft).

Availability and Commercial Production

Prior to World War II, turkey was something of a luxury in Britain, with goose or beef a more common Christmas dinner (In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit had a goose before Scrooge bought him a turkey). Intensive farming of turkeys from the late 1940s, however, dramatically cut the price and it became far and away the most common Christmas dinner meat. With the availability of refrigeration, whole turkeys could be shipped frozen to distant markets. Later advances in control of disease increased production even more. Advances in shipping, changing consumer preferences and the proliferation of commercial poultry plants for butchering animals has made fresh turkey available to the consumer.

Approximately two to four billion pounds of poultry feathers are produced every year by the poultry producing industry. Most of the feathers are usually ground up and used as filler for animal feed. Researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have patented a method of removing the stiff quill from the fibers which make up the feather. As this a potential untapped supply of natural fibers, research has been conducted at Philadelphia University to determine textile applications for feather fibers. To date, turkey feather fibers have been blended with nylon and spun into yarn which was then used for knitting. The yarns were tested for strength while the fabrics were evaluated as potential insulation materials. In the case of the yarns, as the percentage of turkey feather fibers increased the strength decreased. In fabric form, as the percentage of turkey feather fibers increased the heat retention capability of the fabric increased.


Large White turkey male
Large White turkey male

Modern animal husbandry has resulted in significant differences between wild turkeys and commercial farm animals. Broad-breasted varieties are prized for their white meat, fast growth, and excellent feed-conversion ratios. Broad-breasted varieties are typically produced by artificial insemination to avoid injury of the hens by the much larger toms and because the physical changes resulting in broad (double) breasts have also rendered most males incapable of natural mating. Modern commercial varieties have also lost much of their natural ability to forage for food, fly, walk normally, and to escape predators. For this reason, many non-commercial hobbyists as well as organic farmers grow "heritage" breeds such as the Royal Palm or Naragansett -- varieties traditionally grown on farms prior to the advent of large-scale agriculture. Heritage breeds do not grow as quickly as commercial breeds and are single-breasted and thus have less white meat. Their meat has a much stronger turkey taste and does not require flavor additives or brining. Heritage turkeys are disease resistant, strong flyers and foragers, and can mate naturally and raise their young successfully.

Male turkeys strut and demonstrate, usually in groups, to attract hens. They fan out their tail, puff up the feathers on their backs, and drag their primary flight feathers on the ground to produce a "scraping" sound. Part of the demonstration includes gobbling and producing a "puff" sound followed by a very low resonating "boing" that sounds like a rubber band in an echo chamber. The low resonating sound is low enough that it cannot be captured with traditional audio equipment. The hen in turn makes a "yelp" or call that attracts the males. Hens select their mate and crouch on the ground with neck extended to signal their willingness to mate. Hens continue to lay fertile eggs for three to four weeks from just one mating. However, when given the opportunity hens will mate every day.

Some commercial turkey hens occasionally produce young from unfertilized eggs in a process called parthenogenesis.

Most domesticated turkeys are grain-fed.


Still life with hanging turkey, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 2nd third of 18th century.
Still life with hanging turkey, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 2nd third of 18th century.

To kill a live turkey, withhold food for a day to help ensure the digestive system is empty. (Some recommend also feeding the turkey hard liquor before slaughter, both to sedate it and perhaps as a way of flavoring the meat.) Putting the turkey in a bag, with one corner cut out for the head, helps keep the turkey from thrashing and damaging itself or the people involved in preparing it. One method is to hammer two nails into a stump and bend them, then put the turkey's head on the stump and turn the nails to hold the turkey's head still, then remove the turkey's head with an axe. The turkey will thrash for a few moments. More commonly, a turkey is placed upside down inside a metal cone manufactured for this purpose, its neck is cut, and the blood is allowed to drain out. At this point, a process known as debraining may be applied, where the brain stem is severed by pushing a sharp knife or screwdriver in to the mouth and through the back of the throat towards the base of the skull and applying a twisting motion. Successful debraining will generally result in a bird that is easier to pluck.

Hang the carcass upside down to bleed for a half hour or so. When bleeding is complete, the bird can be manually plucked, which gives a good quality carcass. Smaller feathers can be pulled off in a bunch; larger feathers need to be removed one at a time so as not to tear the skin. Stubborn feathers can be pulled with pliers or a forceps. The alternative is to scald the carcass in hot water for 1-3 minutes at a temperature of 60-80ºC before manual plucking. This greatly reduces the amount of labor required to remove the feathers, but care must be taken to avoid accidentally "cooking" the skin. When all the feathers are removed, rinse the turkey's anus to remove any residue, then insert a sharp knife just below the hip bone, but not so deep as to puncture any of the internal organs. Cut down and around on either side of the anus, making sure it's angled up to keep any excretion off the meat. Carefully pull out and discard. Then reach inside the turkey and remove all organs, as well as large globs of fat. If desired, the heart, liver (slice away from other innards, being careful not to puncture the green gall), and gizzard can be saved for giblets. If the gizzard is saved, slice it in half until the gravel inside grates against the knife, then slice around and open up, peeling away the inner layer and discarding the contents. After all the organs have been removed, turn the turkey around and cut around the circumference of the neck and peel down, exposing the esophogus and windpipe. For each, separate them from their attachment points and pull them out, including the crop in the case of the esophogus. Rinse the turkey out with cold water and, if desired, hang and chill for a day or so before freezing.

Turkeys as food

Eating cooked turkey on holidays, especially Thanksgiving, is a common North American tradition.
Eating cooked turkey on holidays, especially Thanksgiving, is a common North American tradition.

Turkeys are traditionally eaten as the main course of large feasts at Christmas in Europe and North America, as well as Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada, in both cases having displaced the traditional goose. While eating turkey was once mainly restricted to special occasions such as these, turkey is now eaten year round and forms a regular part of many diets.

In countries where turkey is popular, it is available commonly in supermarkets. Turkeys are sold sliced and ground, as well as "whole" in a manner similar to chicken with the head, feet, and feathers removed. Frozen whole turkeys remain popular. Sliced turkey is frequently used as a sandwich meat or served as cold cuts. Ground turkey is sold just as ground beef, and is frequently marketed as a healthy beef substitute. Without proper preparation, turkey is usually considered to end up less moist than, say, chicken or duck. Leftovers from roast turkey are generally served as cold cuts on Boxing Day. In Israel, turkey, rather than lamb is usually the choice meat used to make Shawarma.

Turkey sandwiches are very popular at sandwich chains.

Wild turkeys, while technically the same species as domesticated turkeys, have a very different taste from farm-raised turkeys. Almost all of the meat is "dark" (even the breasts) with a more intense turkey flavor. Older heritage breeds also differ in flavor.

Turkey is often found as a processed meat. It can be smoked and as such is sometimes sold as turkey ham. Twisted helices of turkey meat sold as turkey twizzlers came to prominence in the UK in 2004 when chef Jamie Oliver campaigned to have them and similar foods removed from school dinners.


Both fresh and frozen turkeys are used for cooking; as with most foods, fresh turkeys are generally preferred, although they cost more. Around holiday seasons, high demand for fresh turkeys often makes them difficult to purchase without ordering in advance. However, the large size of the turkeys typically used for consumption makes defrosting them a major endeavor: a typically-sized turkey will take several days to properly defrost.

Turkeys are usually baked or roasted in an oven for several hours, often while the cook prepares the rest of the meal. Sometimes, a turkey is brined before baking to enhance flavor and moisture content. In some areas, particularly the American South, they may also be deep fried in hot oil (often peanut oil) for 30 to 45 minutes by using a turkey fryer. Deep frying turkey has become something of a fad, with hazardous consequences for those unprepared to safely handle the large quantities of hot oil required.


For Christmas in Britain, turkey is traditionally served with winter vegetables including roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and parsnips. Cranberry sauce is the traditional condiment in the northern rural areas of Britain where wild cranberries grow. In the south and in urban areas, where cranberries until recently were difficult to obtain, bread sauce was used in its place, but the availability of commercial cranberry sauce has seen a rise in its popularity in these areas too. Sometimes sausagemeat, cocktail sausages or liver wrapped in bacon is also served (known as bacon rolls or " pigs in blankets").

Especially during holiday seasons, stuffing is traditionally served with turkey. There are many varieties: oatmeal, chestnut, sage and onion (flavoured bread), and sausage (possibly with mashed potato) are the most traditional. Stuffing may either be used to stuff the turkey (as the name implies), or may be cooked separately and served as a side dish.

For Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada, turkey is traditionally served with cranberry sauce and gravy. Other items vary, but common complementary dishes include mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, various vegetables (such as corn, green beans, squash, and sweet potatoes), and various types of pie for dessert (such as pumpkin, apple and pecan). One humorous decades-old Thanksgiving tradition in the United States is the annual Presidential "pardon" of a selected turkey, which meets the President and then is taken to a petting zoo instead of a slaughterhouse.

Health concerns

Turkey is generally considered healthier and less fattening than red meat. Turkey is high in tryptophan, and is commonly credited with causing sleepiness after a meal, however this is largely a misconception. Turkey dinners are commonly large meals served with carbohydrates, fats, and alcohol in a relaxed atmosphere, all of which are bigger contributors to post-meal sleepiness than the tryptophan in turkey.

Turkeys in culture

Norman Rockwell featured a roast turkey as a symbol of prosperity in his painting " Freedom from Want", one of his Four Freedom Series.

Turkey dung for fuel

Turkey droppings are planned to fuel an electric power plant in western Minnesota. The plant will provide 55 megawatts of power using 700,000 tons of dung per year. Plant will begin operating in 2007. Three such plants are in operation in England.

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