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Turkey. It is more than just another paltry poultry this week; it's a full blown obsession. The birds have been elevated to icon status, and, like any good American icon, we like them best when they’re dead.
Here is some science, technology, and history of the bird that you may not have heard about.
1. Settlers nearly annihilated the wild turkey population in North America. By 1940, their numbers dwindled to about 20,000. In what is billed as one of the most significant wildlife restoration successes, there are now 7 million wild turkeys across North America, more than double the National Wild Turkey Foundation’s estimate of the number of wild-turkey hunters.
Photo courtesy of National Wild Turkey Federation.
2. Turkeys make at least 20 distinct vocalizations. Males tend to make gobbling sounds during the spring mating season. Turkeys also respond to humans—whether that means hunters with callers or people like Jim Nollman, who, in 1973, created a two-hour (!) song with three flute players and 300 male turkeys called “Music to Eat Thanksgiving Dinner By.” Nollman is now an interspecies communication expert who also plays an electric guitar with orcas.
Cover photo by Peter Thomas, design by Ronald Clyne, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways.
3. The world has six known turkey species. Only one of those species (Meleagris gallopavo) has been widely domesticated, and only eight varieties are commercially raised and recognized by the American Poultry Association. The bulk of the world’s commercial turkey genes, selected for producing the most meat at the lowest possible cost, are largely controlled by two international companies: Aviagen (which sells B.U.T. and Nicholas brand birds) and Hybrid.
Map of chicken (left) and turkey (right) chromosomes.
4. Over the last half century, the weight of the average turkey has increased 57 percent, swelling from 18 pounds to 28 pounds, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. Consequently turkeys can’t reproduce naturally, so they must be artificially inseminated (a patent for a turkey inseminator is pictured, above). Since 1997, when the American Livestock Breed Conservancy noticed that three older varieties (Narragansett, Buff, and Slate) appeared to be on the verge of extinction, “heritage” turkeys have made a comeback. In addition to their lineage, what distinguishes these birds is that they’re capable of having sex naturally. Still, heritage labels are no guarantee the birds are raised organically, on pasture, or without antibiotics.
Illustration for Patent No. 3,872,869 "Poultry Semen Collecting Apparatus."
5. Antibiotics are standard additions to commercially blended poultry feed. (So are corn, hydrolyzed feather meal, and blood meal). Hormones are not, but you can still find the label “no hormones” as long as manufacturers add the USDA-mandated disclaimer: “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” Turkeys aren’t protected by the federal Humane Slaughter Act, and they’re often stunned in electrocuted water baths before being decapitated.
Image: Ropert's Turkey Farm, just West of Farmington on 5 Mile, celebrates their 60th year in business, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from michiganmoves's photostream
6. The value of about 250 million turkeys, which are selling for around $1.09 per pound this year, totals around $3.6 billion, much of that consolidated in 536 establishments, the biggest being Butterball, LLC, Jennie-O Turkey Store, and Cargill Value Added Meats.
7. Every year since 1947, the president has pardoned a turkey. No joke. Last year, the turkey was flown to Disneyland and got to participate in the nearby Rose Parade on New Year's Day. No joke, either. This year, two turkeys from California’s Foster Farms are staying at separate rooms in the stately Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., until their pardon. Then, they’re headed to Mt. Vernon. Nope, still not a joke.
8. The United States Agriculture Department has estimated that about 90 percent of all birds were infected by campylobacteria, the most common causes of diarrhea in the United States.
Photo of campylobacteria from Wikimedia Commons.
9. Seth Tibbott was just another hippie living in a treehouse in Washington when he started selling Tofurky. Although the tofu-based turkey substitute has been compared to “a dog in a prom dress,” sales have climbed significantly since its introduction in 1995. The company currently offers meatless wishbones, and despite research showing that more people like the taste of fake meat when it’s shaped like the real thing, a spokeswomen said they don’t plan on introducing drumstick shaped “Tofurky legs.”
Image of Seth Tibbot by Greg Miller from GOOD 009.
10. The average American eats about 14 pounds of turkey annually. During Thanksgiving dinner, Weight Watchers International estimates that we eat 2,250 calories. By comparison, the average Thanksgiving turkey weighs in at 16 pounds and requires somewhere between 96,000 and 110,000 lifetime calories to feed.