Big Bird


From Wired Science which notes why man has succeeded in breeding big turkeys when evolution failed–it’s not as complicated as you might think:

…the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket. The reason is that turkeys over 30 pounds are “inefficient” breeders: It’s difficult for them to actually perform the natural mating act. With artificial insemination, the largest birds can still be used as sires, even if they have a hard time walking, let alone engaging in sexual reproduction.

Hat tip: @m_sendhil.


What is with the two pound decline in turkey weight around 1950 and the great stagnation in Turkey size imprivement in the fifties? The article says Turkey insemination began in the Sixties, but the average turkey in 1980 was about the same size as in the late forties. Something else is going on for most of that chart.

In World War II turkey size went up. Perhaps this was due to turkey becoming a luxury for the rich and then, once middle class people started buying again, average turkey size went down as a result of breeders buillding up their flocks and producing smaller birds that the middle class could/would buy.

Ronald, I think you are on to something here but perhaps you are overthinking it. As production increases, the marginal bird would naturally become lower quality just like if we enlarged the NBA, the average quality of basketball players would go down.

This effect will happen without the bifurcation between rich and poor consumers as you suggest. I'm not saying you're wrong, but that the explanation is not necessary.

Another explanation might be increased household formation and migration after the war. The number of family units may have grown but average family size decreased. Assuming people buy the optimal size bird and suppliers have good foresight, then average bird size would drop. Workers moving to other parts of the country for jobs would also tend to break up large familiy gatherings. This hypothesis could be supported from census data.

Maybe the advent of Swanson TV dinners affected average bird size. Consumption isn't always at Thanksgiving.

And we can't ignore all of the rationing and price controls that may have greatly distorted prices. You might be totally correct that only the rich could afford turkeys because their supply curve declined.

Why the stagnation during the 70s? The Vietnam War? Energy prices?

"marginal bird would naturally become lower quality just like if we enlarged the NBA, the average quality of basketball players would go down"

Umm, not if we were deliberately breeding better players.

Yes, you are correct. Diminishing returns requires fixed technology.

My point is that you could see a decline in the average size or quality when the number in the denominator increases.

With draws from a random distribution, increasing the sample size should bring the sample mean closer to the population mean.

But when you are increasing the quantity of turkeys, NBA players, logs, etc, assuming you chose the best first then necessarily you will be reaching farther down the quality ladder. I know I just begged the question, but that's sort of the point. Goods are not homogeneous, so quantity and average quality, all else constant, are inversely related as a tautology.

I'd guess it relates to grain prices. Low grain prices lead to feeding longer to make bigger birds. High grain prices would lead to smaller birds since weight gain slows as they reach their maximum size feed efficiency decreases.

But I haven't looked at grain prices to see. This is just a guess.

Part of the problem is that there aren't 3 dimensions but many dimensions. We are talking about average bird size sold. The input prices, prices of other goods, population, etc will affect both desired size and quantity.

Input prices could go up and farmers could profit from selling fewer but larger birds. For example, rising wage costs induces fast food restaurants to sell more product per worker, hence "super size." The relative cost of the ingredients went down as labor costs went up.

There is no great stagnation?

I wonder if the weight of the American family has gone down or up in pounds. Less people, but more of them.

Good question. This was my immediate thought too. Maybe human American reproduction are much different than we think.

Their turkey size infographic is *literally* straight out of Darrell Huff's timeless classic How to Lie with Statistics. Illustrating a doubling in size with a twice as tall (and twice as wide) two dimensional graphic representing a three dimensional object? What a way to suggest a quadrupling or octupling of size when you shouldn't. There's the same example in the book, using a real life example of steel production.



Stand up and take a bow. Note also the beginning base, starting at 12.

Alex took the figure from Wired. Did you want him to edit it? I guess it is required that you read the axes, maybe that is too much to ask.

I know that the graphics are from Wired. That's particularly obvious, since as I hoped was evident from my comment, I was complaining about the pictograph in the linked article, which you have to click through to read

However, I agree with Bill's complaints about this graph as well. Axes that don't start from zero are also an example from the book "How to Lie with Statistics." Yes, people can read the axes to determine it, but the point of a graph is to convey information quickly and effectively, and misleading line graphs and pictographs are misleading if a quick glance is contradicted by careful reading.

Apparently it's too much to ask that you read my comment or click through to the article. Or be polite.

For crying out loud it doesnt matter where the scale starts. Average turkey weight clearly doubles from about 13 to more than 26 pounds.

What is this third dimension you're talking about?

Dude, the graph is of weight.

I'm not talking about that graph. I'm talking about the infographic in the article, which you have to click through to read.

Exactly. As is the pictograph that I actually referred to. That's the point-- doubling the height of a 2-D picture of a 3-D turkey implies on first glance that weight, which is related to volume, increased by 4 or 8 times, not 2.

Graphs should have numbers that explain them, but the pictures should convey the information quickly and accurately. Both graphs associated with this article fail, the second pictograph IMO worse.

Particularly when you double the width of the graphic at the same time as the height, to maintain proportionality.

Misses the point: Standard modern-day turkeys taste like nothing, not worth any penny of their low price. When I was a kid turkeys tasted of... turkey!

For this Thanksgiving, purchased an extraordinarily high priced turkey. It was very good, but "the marginal cost of quality" is very high in the US. The reason, in a world of scale economies, no matter how slight, of course, is that my fellow citizens have no taste.

Please, fellow citizens, get better taste, so that I can live better.

So you got the specialty turkey you wanted, but you're complaining because it was too expensive?

Correct! And it's the other consumers' fault. :-)

Reminds me of that chicken commercial where the birds are plumped with salt water.

Genetics might be improving, feed might be getting better, antibiotics might keep birds alive longer to grow fatter, and there might be artificial weight added.

Lots of ways to cook this bird.

In what sense did evolution fail? Is there a survival value to turkeys from weighing over 25 lbs.?

And is the average weight really 29 lbs? I'm not sure I believe that. Seems awfully high.

Apparently for every 19 pound bird there is a 39 pound bird.

Uses of turkeys for other purposes, say pet food, might be affecting the numbers too.

Color me skeptical.

The "why man has succeeded in breeding big turkeys when evolution failed" leaped out at me, as well.

Evolution did not "fail", because evolution does not have some goal that it could "fail" to achieve. Having heavier turkeys is a -human- goal that human turkey breeders want to achieve. Evolution would produce heavier turkeys only if that produced some benefit to the survival of turkey genes -- and there are many reasons to think that such would -not- be the case.

The real issue is how artificial insemination allowed the breeding of heavier turkeys, when natural insemination would not -- but -both- of these are 'artificial' in the sense of being the product of 'artifice', which is the human breeding of turkeys in line with human goals.

Thank you!


And I'd guess that past a certain point, much less than 30 lbs. added weight is a negative, since it makes it harder for the turkey to escape predators.

Natural selection probably did breed bigger turkeys, and they either failed to survive or reproduce.

Turkeys in captivity for production are protected from predators, disease, accidents, and starvation.

Take a stroll through any shopping mall or fast food joint, then fill in the blank.

"the largest .... can still be used as sires, even if they have a hard time walking, let alone engaging in sexual reproduction"

Indeed, if the huge turkeys can hardly walk, why would evolution make them bigger? So they are more attractive to humans and more likely to be eaten? The question is, why did evolution produce conscienceless humans, who 'produce' turkeys like that and kills them for pleasure?

Evolution did produce the other kind of humans. They starved to death.

Why do breeders want bigger turkeys? Efficiency? Is it more profitable to sell a big turkey than 2 small turkeys. If there is any correlation with taste, I would expect a negative one.

I think the main issue is not so much size itself, but (as the Wired article notes) that larger turkeys are more efficient at converting feed to meat, and grow faster. For example, if someone bred a type of turkey that could grow to 100 pounds, but took ten years and 1000 pounds of feed to reach that size, it would not be a commercially successful variety.

The more you know, the more disgusting it gets.

Time for in-vitro meat.

Artificial insemination of turkeys. What hath man done? I hope you all pictured the reality of the situation: forcedly obese female turkeys drawn from their suffocating pens, only to be raped by machines. (And then eaten, of course.)

> situation: forcedly obese female turkeys drawn from their suffocating pens,
> only to be raped by machines. (And then eaten, of course.)

if you remove the name of the bird species, this would sound like a plausible plot for
a japanese movie...

Look at that growth, it is clear we are dealing with a Turkey Bubble and should implement policies to get turkey size back to trend-level (eyeballed ~23-24pounds @ 2012) before it crashes. We are obviously living in peak-turkey times, but a large enough systemic turkey size crash (say down to 1950's level of 18 pounds per turkey!) would cause a permanent reduction in potential turkey size!


Evolution is not a thing. It doesn't fail as other above have eloquently said. I'm thinking evolution is more an explanation of a statistical process. Roll dice a million times and the histogram tells you which sides were loaded and by about how much.

Artificial insemmination is usually found to be wonderful, but it has very serious consequences down the road. The harness racing ( a type of horse racing where the horse pulls a cart) industry is dealing with the problem. This is a typical reaction, however, of economics types, with no training in the field.

Surprised the entire thread missed this: the spike up in weight occurred in 1980. This is because Yuppies made Thanksgiving a 'big deal' (literally) and the Big Bird came n demand, as a sort of Disney cliche. So taste went down and, as in many things in the 80s, 'size mattered'. Apropos of nothing, I have raised and slaughtered fowl. Two methods: one is to chop the head off cleanly. That's easy and a 'no brainer', literally. Just watch your fingers when you swing the ax, newbies. The other--and it's really hard to do this right--is to hang the bird upside down, find the jugular vein with a stiletto either inside the throat or outside (there are so many feathers to hide it too) and slit the jugular--then, and this is key--before the bird entirely is dead but has bled out, you stick the knife in the back of the brain (not the front!) and it will loosen the feathers. A characteristic shudder and squawking sound is made. If you stick the knife in the front of the bird brain it will tighten the feathers and make them harder to pluck. And please use either a fixed blade or a locking blade newbies, as in your haste you may have the knife blade fold back on your fingers. Don't worry too much, bleeding hearts, fowl don't feel as much they say as do mammals. You meat eaters should kill and dress your own meat sometime. Though I would not try my hand at cattle--if killing fowl is complicated I can only imagine killing livestock.

It does make me wonder if there's demand for "whole" big birds. It's tough to imagine even large families needing 25-30 lb birds. I wonder if the whole bird sales direct to consumer (such as for Thanksgiving) tend to still be smaller birds, even if they're less efficient in the food to weight conversion ratio?

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