It was the turkey call heard around the world.

Last year, when the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate came to Blacksburg following the traditional White House ceremony, people around the globe were chatting online about the HokieBird’s newest fine-feathered friends, and thousands of people visited the birds at their new home, Gobbler’s Rest.

Now Tater and Tot, as the birds are affectionately known, are expanding their flock.

Following the Presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey at the White House, this year’s birds (the official bird and its alternate “wingman”) are once again coming to Virginia Tech to live out their days in the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the annual event at the White House.

Virginia Tech is a natural home for the birds since it has played such a vital role in the history of making turkey a staple of the American diet and continues to be a driver in the poultry industry.

“The relationship between the National Turkey Federation and Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences helps showcase the modern turkey industry while maintaining a connection to the past, which is appropriate with this year’s 70th observance of the White House presentation,” said National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger.

National Thanksgiving Turkey returns to Virginia Tech

The Presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey started in 1947. The National Turkey Federation’s first chairman, Virginian Charlie Wampler Sr., was among the first to present a live turkey to President Harry S. Truman.

Years before, in 1922, Wampler was a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent who sought advice from the head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Poultry Science, A.L. Dean, on how to raise turkeys. In the following years, Wampler went on to create a growing business while Dean advised Wampler on turkey-raising techniques. Wampler is regarded as the father of the modern turkey industry and founded the National Turkey Federation in 1940.

The National Turkey Federation’s 2017 chairman, Carl Wittenburg, and his wife, Sharlene, are raising the “presidential flock” with the involvement of five members of the Douglas County, Minnesota, 4-H Science of Ag Team, who helped care for the turkeys and researched the best litter type for bedding.   

After two birds are chosen based on appearance and temperament, they head to Washington, D.C., where they stay at a hotel near the White House as part of a series of media events leading up to the presentation of the National Thanksgiving Turkey.

The event not only serves as the opening of the holiday season, but also reminds America of the history and role of agriculture, from feeding the world to growing the economy.

Following their spotlight at the White House, the two birds will travel to Gobbler’s Rest on Plantation Road in Blacksburg.

“Tater and Tot are very excited to get some new neighbors,” said Rami Dalloul, a poultry immunologist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who was at the White House last year to receive the birds. The research and outreach Dalloul and other faculty have done has made a substantial impact on the poultry industry and is one of the reasons the birds are coming to Virginia Tech.

Public visiting hours will be Nov. 26. In the meantime, people can follow the birds’ journey on the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Tech social media channels or use the hashtag #presidentialturkey2017.

Today, poultry makes up the largest sector of Virginia’s agricultural portfolio with more $1 billion in annual cash receipts.

The Virginia Tech Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine help grow the state’s economy by conducting innovative research to benefit industry and educating the next generation of poultry scientists and veterinarians.

Dalloul is a world-renowned poultry immunologist who a few years ago sequenced the turkey genome, which opened the door to new levels of understanding of the birds as well as genetics. Mike Persia, an associate professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, works with industry to improve poultry management and production.

—    Written by Zeke Barlow

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