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The ancestor of the domestic turkey is the North American wild turkey. Like other domestic livestock, wild turkeys were suited for domestication by their tolerance for living in close proximity with humans, flexible diet, and long reproductive season. Wild turkeys from Mexico (Meleagris gallopavo subspecies gallopavo) were domesticated by the precontact native cultures before 180AD. These turkeys were transported in the 1500’s to Europe and several varieties were developed. European varieties returned to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries with settlers, and from them our current domestic varieties were developed. The Mexican progenitor of the domestic turkey and many of the early European varieties are extinct.
Turkeys were common on farms in colonial America for domestic use and were transported by ship to many markets. On early farmsteads some breeders crossed domestic turkeys with wild turkeys, probably the Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris). Recent DNA studies, however, show minimal contribution of wild turkeys to the domestic turkey genome, so the hybrids were probably crossed back to the domestic varieties for improved temperament and productivity.
Specialized varieties of turkeys were developed by selecting for local adaptation, color, growth, and temperament, and these varieties were named for the region where they were developed and their color. Eight varieties of American turkeys are recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA), Black, Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Slate, White Holland, and Beltsville Small White. Two additional varieties developed in the mid to late 20th century are now used widely in commercial production, the Broad Breasted White and the Broad Breasted Bronze. Of the eight APA recognized varieties, five were well established by the 1870s when standards were created – these are the Black, Bronze, Narragansett, Slate, and White Holland. Documented history indicates that these varieties likely originated in the 1700’s.
The domestic turkey is a single breed with the different varieties defined primarily by plumage color and conformation. DNA studies comparing 5 heritage varieties (Narragansett, Black, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, and Slate) found them to be very closely related to each other and to the more populous broad breasted white (commercial turkey), consistent with their documented history and their treatment as a single breed.
Heritage turkey numbers declined rapidly after development of the Broad Breasted White. A census by The Livestock Conservancy in 1997 found only 1330 breeding birds of all varieties combined. Through promotion efforts and growing interest in locally produced food, these numbers have increased and most varieties are out of immediate danger of extinction. Additional growth in breeding populations are needed, however, to ensure the future of these historic turkey varieties.
The domestic turkey is a breed composed of numerous varieties which have a long documented history in the United States and are distinct from their wild cousins. The varieties were standardized beginning in 1874, and DNA evidence shows that all are closely related.
Kamara, D., K. B. Gyenai, T. Geng, H. Hammade, and E. J. Smith, 2007. Microsatellite Marker- Based Genetic Analysis of Relatedness Between Commercial and Heritage Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). Poultry Science 86:46-49.
Powell, R.E. 1990. Turkey Husbandry in Virginia and the Chesapeake Regions 1750-1830. Colonial Williamsburg Research Report 327.
Schorger, A. W. 1966. The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication. University of Oklahoma Press.
Speller, C.F., B. M. Kemp, S. D. Wyatt, C. Monroe, W. D. Lipe, U. M. Arndt, and D. Y. Yang, 2010. Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Analysis Reveals Complexity of Indigenous North American Turkey Domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 107: 2807-2812.