“We consumers think of turkeys not as farm animals, but just another mass-produced item on a shopping list.”
(Sara Bir,’How Turkeys Got Broad, White Breasts’, Modern Farmer, November 24, 2014
Turkeys are indigenous to the southwest part of North America and Central Mexico and have spread throughout the world from there. They were introduced to Europe via the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, and made their way back to North America by way of Britain’s colonization of New England. A hundred years ago, you would have found turkeys on most North American farms because turkeys were considered a near perfect fit for the needs of rural families. Turkeys were self-reliant foragers who could breed without human assistance, lay plenty of eggs, and raise their own young. Most importantly, they were a good source of inexpensive meat for the table.
It is not by accident that I said ‘were’, because this is no longer the case.
As with so many other rare breeds of domestic livestock, turkeys have also been victims of 20th century advances in farming, refrigeration, and transportation. Today nearly all the turkeys we consume – about ninety-nine percent, in fact – are Broad-Breasted Whites. Broad-Breasted Whites have been bred to grow extremely fast and move very little. They cannot reproduce naturally, but must be artificially inseminated because the enormous breast of the Broad-Breasted makes the bird unable to breed.
Because nearly all turkeys are the same breed, and there are few strains within that one breed, modern turkeys are the most genetically eroded of any livestock. Apart from the ubiquitous Broad-Breasted White, most other breeds of turkey are threatened with extinction. Among these endangered breeds is the Royal Palm.
Royal Palm Turkey Tom at the farm of Brent and Janet Tolhurst, St. Chrysostome, QC
The history of the Royal Palm turkey is not a long one. The breed was only recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1971. Although similarly marked turkeys have been around for centuries – one black and white variety known as the Pied or Crollwitz has existed in Europe since the 1700’s – the Royal Palm was developed in Lake Worth, Florida, on the farm of Enoch Carson in the 1920’s.
“Mr. Carson began developing the breed in the 1920s using crosses between several turkey breeds, including the Black, Narragansett, and Bronze as well as with wild turkeys. Royal Palm turkeys became a recognized breed by the American Poultry Association in 1971, decades after its inception, largely because it took so many years to stabilize the breed’s unique coloring. Although the coloring will occur accidentally in crosses, establishing a predictable lineage took quite a while.” (Countryside Daily, Nov. 4 2016)
The Royal Palm is truly beautiful. The saddle (back) of the bird is black, while the base colour of the rest of the bird is white. The white feathers end in black metallic edging giving the Royal Palm its spectacular showy appearance.
The Royal Palm’s purpose was principally as an exhibition bird; it was not intended for commercial meat production. But that is not to say that they are not good eating –they are! Although they are small in size -the hens reach a mature weight of 10lbs; the Toms weigh an average of 16lbs – the meat is flavourful and is prized by chefs. Slow Food USA includes the Royal Palm in its Ark of Taste. Unlike most domestic turkeys, Royal Palms are active birds capable of flight. They are also good foragers who will do a good job keeping the barnyard insect population in check. While they might lack the commercial potential of other heritage turkey breeds, Royal Palm turkeys are ideal birds for a small farm due to their longevity, ability to reproduce, and thriftiness.
The breed’s status is unknown in Canada as there are no known large-scale breeders. Rare Breeds Canada estimates the Royal Palm to be critically endangered.
Sources: www.grist.org, The Livestock Conservancy (www.livestockconservancy.org) , Modern Farmer Magazine (www.modernfarmer.com), Slow Food USA (www.slowfoodusa.org)