Modern turkeys twice the size of turkeys from 80 years ago


A wild turkey roams a field in California (Don McCullough/Flickr)
A wild turkey roams a field in California (Don McCullough/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 27, 2014

Turkey has been a staple of Thanksgiving dinners for generations but the bird’s evolution over the past century or so has been particularly interesting.

Turkeys raised and served these days are more than twice as large as they were in the 1930s. Many of the reasons for the increase in the size of these fowls is directly related to the turkey farming industry. Beginning in the 1950s turkey farmers began selectively breeding birds for both size and speed of growth to accommodate for increased demand of turkey meat. With some male turkeys weighing as much as 50 pounds they became unable to impregnate their female mates and today nearly all turkeys are bred through artificial insemination.

There is debate much about whether these selectively-bred turkeys are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While most scientists would not classify turkeys as GMOs, some conventionally-raised turkeys are fed GMO corn. Since turkeys are being fed in close quarters with modern farm operations, the birds are given lower doses of antibiotics to protect against infection. This change in antibiotic dosages has caused violence among turkeys and has even lead instances of cannibalism.

Farm-raised turkeys also suffer from various health complications ranging from foot and leg deformities to premature heart attacks because of their larger bodies. Wild turkeys, which are generally slimmer and more mobile than their farm-raised counterparts, are able to reach speeds of 25 miles per hour on the ground and up to 55 miles per hour in the air. Selective breeding practices have caused this evolutionary rift between farm-raised and wild turkeys.

Minnesota leads the nation in turkey production with approximately 49 million birds each year. Iowa ranks ninth nationally with 11 million turkeys annually.

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