My Life as a Turkey
The Making of a Turkey


Native to North America , the common turkey was tamed between 800 BC and 200 BC by the people of pre-Columbian Mexico. However, these early Americans weren’t the only ones to breed the bird.

Scientists conducting DNA analysis of ancient turkey remains recently discovered that the Pueblo peoples of what is now the southwestern United States achieved their own distinct domestication around 200 BC. For more than a millennium, Pueblo turkeys were raised primarily for their feathers, which were used in rituals, ceremonies, and textiles; it wasn’t until around 1100 AD that the turkey became an important source of sustenance for the Puebloans.

Despite centuries of successful breeding, some researchers believe that the Pueblo turkey may have become extinct, but no one knows for sure. DNA tests indicate that it is most closely related to two modern subspecies of wild turkey, the Eastern and Rio Grande, which roam U.S. forests and fields to this day. What is clear, however, is that the Pueblo breed did not become part of the modern domestic turkey’s bloodline. Instead, the distinction of “closest cousin” goes to the Aztec turkey, a direct descendent of the breed that was first domesticated in pre-Columbian Mexico.

domesticatedwildsmallWhen Spanish conquistadors encountered Aztec turkeys in the early sixteenth century, they promptly shipped the bird back to Europe. Here, esteem for the Aztec turkey rose with remarkable speed – no small feat, as New World fare was often embraced rather tentatively in the Old World. According to food historian Andrew F. Smith, there are number of factors that likely contributed to the turkey’s surprising popularity: it tasted good, it reproduced quickly, it was easy to care for, and it was relatively inexpensive to produce.

By the mid-sixteenth century, turkeys were common throughout Europe. When the first English colonists set off for what is now the eastern United States, they brought their turkeys with them – and so the bird crossed the Atlantic once again.

Fortunately for the colonial turkeys, the wild breeds encountered in North America were plentiful and large – significantly larger than the domestic birds shipped in from Europe. Settlers focused their attention on hunting rather than breeding until the supply of wild turkey was all but exhausted, at which point they began incorporating untamed birds into their domestic stock. This experiment produced the predecessors of the large-breasted domestic turkeys we are familiar with today, including the modern Thanksgiving turkey.

And which breed (wild or domestic) was served at the first Thanksgiving? The answer, most likely, is neither. Instead, the menu seems to have featured venison, seafood, duck, and goose. Though it is unclear exactly when turkeys and Thanksgiving became so closely entwined, the one thing that is obvious is that the turkey’s place on the table has been firmly established.

  • CQ

    Re your last sentence: As an increasing number of humans realize that the true usefulness of other inhabitants on earth is in what they can teach us about living with joy and simplicity and decency and honesty and affection, the tradition of putting a turkey’s carcass on the table for Thanksgiving — or any other day — will lose its appeal.

    When man gets over his superiority complex and his consequent desire to dominate others, that’ll be a true cause for celebration!

    I have the authors of the quotes in to thank for guiding me to this inspired, ethical way to view and treat all sentient beings.



  • Johnnie Tyler

    Can I buy a video? My son would love it for Christmas. Loved it. So simple, so much said.

  • Alain Suel

    So for the ‘re-enactment’ you led a rat snake into an enclosure so it could eat a chick? Just for this show? That’s messed up. I thought PBS was all about promoting nature, shame on you.

  • Renee Adams

    Johnnie Tyler, if you return to this site…. you can buy a copy by going to ShopPBS. If you do it today or tomorrow (Nov 20, 21), you can buy the DVD on sale… along with the book for 20 percent off. A really good deal. I hope you see this note or figured out how to buy it from the ShopPBS site. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Alain, I guess you don’t eat meat. My sons don’t either, but they do eat fish or seafood sometimes, but it’s the sustainability issue… environmental pollution… and extreme cruelty that is their reasoning. They grew up on nature programs and realize that death is a part of life.

  • Fred

    To Alain – no turkeys were harmed or killed for the film. The rat snake scene was set-up with an already dead chick.

  • Ron

    Loved the show….great job; thoroughly enjoyed it!
    Is the soundtrack available/listed?

  • Jean

    I would also like to know if there is a soundtrack available. More specifically, I’d like to know what song is playing about 39-40 minutes into the film.

  • Jim Wells

    I think this is an amazing story, beautifully filmed and told. Among other things, I was reminded of how time and space are meaningless in the present moment, something Joe Hutto seems to experience in a very special way. I am also aware of how life continues to unfold as programmed (including rituals to determine the fittest of a species) despite Joe’s efforts to have a close and enduring relationship with the turkeys. I continue to ponder numerous other apparent implications for understanding our human place in the scheme of things, our relationship to other creatures, and our social interactions with one another. Thank you for skillfully filming the reenactment and sharing this delightful, thought-provoking story!

  • Ignignokt

    Suddenly I don’t want to eat dinner tomorrow . What an amazing show .

    I want to know who did the closing song .

  • Beth J

    Amazing, loved it! But how did you get some of those shots without help from an assistant? Who ever did that filming – kudos!!

  • Rob Holtz

    Nature rocks and their programs are always well done. Love it.
    These shows make me smile just like the video below a dog and deer boxing.

  • Al

    I was actually looking for one of the songs as well. It wasn’t the last song, but near the end. I think it might have been a woman singing, but I can’t remember. I see original music was done by Rob Dunstone, but that doesn’t help me much.

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