The Man Who Saved Turkeys From Extinction

Meet the man who saved turkeys from extinction.

ByABC News

Nov. 15, 2007 — -- The bald eagle may be the U.S. national bird, but there's another set of plumage most Americans identify as a symbol of national pride -- the turkey.

Turkey has become the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner across America, but one man says most of those turkeys next Thursday won't be the real deal.

Frank Reese Jr. has been raising turkeys for 50 years. Through the Heritage Turkey Project, Reese is trying to preserve a national treasure and improve your Thanksgiving meal.

"The main mission is preservation of genetics, genetic diversity," said Reese.

"The industrial turkeys that we buy at the grocery store are basically one genetic line worldwide."

Because of that, every turkey tastes exactly like every other turkey. Bred to have a disproportionate amount of white meat, today's turkeys have little flavor.

"There is a difference in the taste," said Reese. "You are going to have a much darker and much richer dark meat on my turkeys."

And Reese has the awards to prove it.

"All the times we have entered tasting contests, our turkeys have won," Reese added.

But Reese's mission isn't just about taste. He's trying to keep the variety of turkey former generations of Americans enjoyed alive. While most of us think turkey is turkey, in reality there are five very different breeds of turkey, each with a distinct look, significance and most importantly, flavor.

The standard bronze, the white Holland, the Narragansett, the bourbon red and the black turkey are all breeds Reese has helped save from extinction. They differ greatly from the generic form of turkey most of us put on our plates.

"The commercial turkey of today is basically a selected or genetically engineered bird that came about in the '70s. It is a bird that grows at a much more rapid rate," said Reese. "They are artificially inseminated, the majority of them are raised in confined buildings."

Reese's birds are the closest to the original you can get.

"These heritage turkeys are the same turkeys that have been raised for Thanksgiving since 1850," said Reese. "They're the turkeys that were on every farm and everyone's table in America."

Heritage birds look and live just as they always have.

"These turkeys that I have, have never been confined in 100 years," said Reese. "These are the turkeys you see on post cards in plates. If you ask a first grader to draw a turkey these are the turkeys that they draw and I think they should have the right to be on this Earth."

Reese's passion for turkey is nothing new. His love affair with the bird dates back to the first grade. In a one-room country schoolhouse, Reese penned his first love letter to the turkey, a short story titled "Me and My Turkey."

Since then, he's had a unique talent and passion for selecting the best of each turkey breed. Out of a flock of four or five thousand turkeys, the ones Reese picks out are those who will represent the historic turkey to future generations.

And his efforts are paying off. Since Reese started breeding heritage turkeys for market in 2002, demand for the birds has exploded -- 17 fold. But none of that matters to Reese, he's simply fulfilling a lifetime passion.

"I guess everyone has their purpose in life," said Reese. "Mine was to help preserve these turkeys."

Charles Gibson and Blair Soden contributed to this report.