Turkey Jerking

How poultry breeders have given new meaning to the phrase "bird lover"

It's a story of big breasts, heavy petting, and weird science. More simply put, it's the story of the Thanksgiving turkey -- that plump, juicy bird so many will feast on in a few short days.

Heavy-chested and meaty, today's turkey is a fine-feathered example of genetic engineering -- the product of decades of carefully controlled breeding. In the 1950s, consumers began demanding bigger, fuller-breasted birds. Scientists responded by selecting only the largest birds for breeding purposes. And so on, and so on.

To the mutual delight of hungry consumers and eager scientists, the turkeys blossomed. Actually, ballooned is more accurate. Soon, turkeys more than doubled in size. In fact, the male, or "tom," turkeys grew so large and clumsy that they were no longer able to mate naturally.

Turkey breeders searched in vain for a solution. They even made canvas saddles with wing holes for the hens. The saddles, however, were unsuccessful; the guy turkeys were too heavy to get up on the saddles, much less do anything once they were there. Plus, breeders were less than thrilled with the prospect of saddling hundreds of hens.

Once again, science saved the day. Poultry scientists recalled experiments by two USDA researchers in the 1930s, who had discovered that a certain manner of stroking a male bird caused him to ejaculate, a technique called "abdominal massage." The semen could thus be collected and injected into a hen -- in other words, artificial insemination. UC Davis professors Frank Ogasawara and Fred Lorenz pioneered the technique in California, and shared their knowledge with the state's turkey breeders. Ranches across the nation also enthusiastically adopted the method.

Today, virtually all turkeys are bred by artificial insemination, says Dr. Francine Bradley, an avian scientist at UC Davis. In fact, this method will produce most of the 300 million turkeys -- roughly 18 pounds per person -- that Americans will eat this year.

Both turkey breeders (farms that raise genetic stock) and turkey "integrators" (companies that raise birds solely as food, like Foster Farms and Con Agra, which produces Butterball turkeys) use the technique. Tom turkeys are kept on stud ranches and "milked" once a week. "Big semen machines is really all they are," says Con Agra hatchery manager and longtime turkey man Henry Peralta. Indeed, one tom's output can artificially inseminate 30 hens, each of which will produce about 90 eggs in the following six months.

Using artificial insemination, breeders have developed still larger birds. Today's average 1-month-old turkey weighs a little over 2 pounds -- nearly three times the weight of the same bird 70 years ago. "This technique really saved the turkey industry," Bradley says. "With AI, the industry has been very effective in producing a big, efficient bird."

Bradley offers a demonstration. She explains, somewhat apologetically, that UC Davis has no turkeys at the moment. With the university's main turkey expert on sabbatical in Scotland, she says, the department just can't afford to keep spare turkeys around. But the university has plenty of chickens, says Bradley. Abdominal massage works on all poultry, so a chicken would do just fine. She arranges a visit to UC Davis, for a close-up look at this technique.

Bordered by black walnut trees and dry blond grasses, Poultry Headquarters at UC Davis contains all the university's poultry. (During World War II, interned Japanese-Americans were housed in several of the barracklike buildings.) Outside "headquarters," Bradley steps into a pair of yellow coveralls and retrieves a black leather kit from the trunk of the car. She pulls what looks like clear plastic Christmas stockings over her shoes, and ties the tops.

Inside the first building, she steps in a plastic tub of disinfectant, to destroy any possible poultry-killing diseases, and then continues outside. Bradley stops at one of the buildings, and opens the door on an ear-splitting chorus of squawking, clucking, and crowing.

The door opens on a low-lit room where 1,000 chickens -- New Hampshires, silkies, and leghorns -- sit in back-to-back wire cages aligned in four long rows. A man in a blue smock and cap calmly works his way around the building, collecting eggs and carefully avoiding the piles of sawdust, feathers, and, yes, chicken shit on the floor beneath the cages.

Bradley reaches into one compartment, where WB 5540, a fluffy, white 3-year-old leghorn, is pacing back and forth. Gently but firmly, she removes the bird and rests his chest on the feed trough. "Brawwwck" is all WB 5540 has to say for himself at this point.

Bradley holds his pale, twiglike feet together with one hand. She runs the other hand from his neck to his tail feathers, with four fingers on his back and her thumb on the bird's side, until his tail stands straight up. Four short strokes is all it takes. Bradley squeezes the area around his "vent," and collects the results in a small glass vial. "That's a good boy!" She returns WB 5540 to his cage.

It's one of those things, says Bradley, that gets easier the more you do it. Perhaps. But it's also a specialized skill that requires training and practice. Handlers develop relationships with their toms, as both parties get acquainted and grow accustomed to the routine. "Turkeys definitely recognize people," Bradley says. "And they respond better to people they're familiar with."

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