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The Proud Bird : White Birds Can't Dance

November 20, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

The Podolls of North Dakota have been raising white turkeys for more than 30 years. But recently they've made the switch back to the dark, classic-looking Bronze.

In doing so, the Podolls are not merely regressing to an earlier time of barnyard flocks; the new birds on the farm are an "improved" bronze, which means that they share some of the most desirable characteristics of the industry's popular white birds. And while the birds are, as turkey farmer David Podoll puts it, "almost organic," the use of a drug to discourage coccidiosis disqualifies them from organic certification. (Even if the birds did receive organic certification, the USDA doesn't recognize present organic certification or allow it on labeling). To eliminate another disease hazard, the Podolls recently cut their flock in half, from 6,000 to 3,000 in order to raise them in confinement.

The Podolls new turkeys are a broad-breasted variety developed by the Kent Hatchery in Texas, a small breeding operation that has maintained Bronzes for the last 30 to 40 years--years the dark birds have been held in disfavor.

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David Podoll, who farms with his brother, Dan, chose to go with the Bronze turkeys for their hardiness and personalities. "It was 1960 when we last had Bronzes," says David Podoll, 40. "I remember my dad remarking on their personalities at the time. These birds are extremely friendly. They seem to want to be around you all the time. You have to keep moving when you're out among them or they will crowd up to you and start to trample the smaller birds."

This improved Bronze, says Podoll, has high spirits, sturdy legs and a desirable body confirmation: although they are broad-breasted, much of the weight is toward the back of the breast, so the birds can stand better. And Bronzes have good strong legs. Some of Podoll's heaviest hens easily scale a four-foot fence without even attempting to fly.

"We like to see our birds move around," he says. "They're happy and active and they dance. Our hens in particular leap up in the air and turn, much like dancing cranes. You don't see white birds dance. The average white bird we'd been raising not only couldn't scale a four-foot fence, she wouldn't even try."

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Still, Podoll says, even the white bird is naturally active and inquisitive. "They run and play, although it's now at a much lower range," Podoll says. And things may get worse for the white bird; Podoll fears that the turkey industry may have backed itself into a corner: "We have inbred a white bird to where it can no longer maintain itself and we may not have the genetic pool to save it."

The Podolls may find that their Bronzes' hardiness, color and personality will be a precious commodity if white turkeys continue to inbreed in years to come.

For now, however, Podoll is just enjoying his Bronzes. "I have a need as a farmer to be able to spend a certain amount of time working with and among the birds. They respond to a relationship in a way that instills a contentment and security in the bird and that's important."

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