“Are there European turkeys?”

Wild turkey. This dinosaur — I mean, bird — is found only in North America. (Image: Riki7 via Wikipedia)

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, The Five-Year-Old’s world has become dominated by turkeys. Hand turkeys, color-by-number turkeys, dot-to-dot turkeys, even glitter turkeys, have all waddled their way through our house in the past week or two, on occasion escorted by a Pilgrim decked out in non-traditional Pilgrim attire. (The Five-Year-Old tends to color with green and gold instead of black, so her Pilgrims end up looking like leprechauns. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

With all this talk of turkeys naturally The Five-Year-Old wanted to know, “Are there European turkeys?”

Yes.

A Black Spanish turkey tom. (Photo: Carly & Art, via Wikipedia)

Although the wild turkey is native to North America, turkeys are a relatively inexpensive food source, so thanks to industrialized farming, you can now find domesticated turkeys around the world.

The Spanish are credited with bringing wild turkeys to Europe in 1519. Apparently when Christopher Columbus caught sight of the wild turkey strutting about the American countryside, his first thought was “I need to hunt that.” Eventually one of his fellow Spaniards decided to bring the fun home with him, and the European domesticated turkey market was born.

Given the European reputation for style, perhaps it’s not surprising that the breeds you’re most likely to find there include the Black Spanish and the Royal Palm.

The Royal Palm turkey tom. (Photo: Kevin Saff)

One of the few turkeys used for ornamentation and not dinner, the Royal Palm’s distinct coloring is the result of crossing Black, Bronze, Narragansett, and native turkeys. The Royal Palm first appeared on a farm in Lake Worth, Florida in 1920. (European birds with similar coloring are sometimes called Cröllwitzer, Pied, or Black-laced White turkeys.)

Years of selective breeding were required to stabilize the Royal Palm’s distinctive metallic black-on-white coloring. And I do mean years. The American Poultry Association didn’t even adopt a standard for Royal Palms until 1971. Despite its relatively recent history, the Royal Palm is considered a heritage turkey, and like all heritage turkeys too small for use on industrialized farms, is facing extinction.

The Norfolk or Cambridge Bronze Turkey, a type commonly raised in East Anglia, UK. (Photo: Nordelch via Wikipedia)

And in case you were wondering, once established in Spain, the turkey made its way fairly quickly to the Pilgrim’s homeland in England as well. Although turkey would remain something of a luxury item until the 19th century, in 1573 English farmer and instructional poet Thomas Tusser documented the turkey’s role as the centerpiece of the farmer’s Christmas feast. Somewhat ironically, a 1584 supply list includes “turkies, male and female” among the items sent to equip colonists in the New World. The domestic turkeys were bred with wild turkeys to increase the colonists’ own stock.

Fun fact: Although domesticated turkeys are famously grounded, wild turkeys can fly. And I have the photo to prove it.

Wild turkey in flight. (Photo: Cody Pope, via Wikipedia)

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About Shala Howell

I write about wildly curious kids, rabbits who hunt dragons, and 1880s Boston. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write than the current one), I blog about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, muse about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, or tweet about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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2 Responses to “Are there European turkeys?”

  1. Idebenone says:

    In 1851 wild turkeys – the official game bird of Massachusetts – were extinct in the state due to overhunting. Breeding efforts between 1972 and 1996 succeeded and there are now over 20,000 wild turkeys in Massachusetts.

    Like

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