It has been a long time since we had any posts related to turkeys! Now that it’s November again, it is definitely time to revisit those magnificent birds. A good place to start is by examining different varieties of domestic turkeys. Since there are many different breeds, I’ll make this the first half of a two-part post.
The majority of turkeys available at the supermarket are Broad Breasted White turkeys, a non-standardized commercial strain noted for quickly putting on weight. The white feathers also serve a practical purpose by making it difficult for market-goers to spot an imperfectly plucked turkey. These large birds are raised in factory farms and their diminished existence means that they do not attain the cunning which broader life experience brings to free-range fowl. Nevertheless, they are not nearly as dim as they are made out to be by popular myth.
The turkeys we raised on the farm when I was a child were Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys which are also a non-standardized breed noted for quick weight gain. Neither the Broad-Breasted Bronze nor the Broad-Breasted White turkeys are capable of reproduction without the aid of artificial insemination. My family obtained our turkeys as little poults through the mail and the birds’ later inability to have offspring was rather pathetic. Additionally our pet turkeys tended to develop health complications due to their immense and ungainly size. Other breeds of turkeys from the past did not have these issues. They were kept by homeowners and farmers as small rafters (that’s the proper term for a group of turkeys) or as individuals. Since turkeys are formidable hunters capable of eating a vast quantity of insects, the birds, like other domestic fowl, served as pest control before commercial poisons became inexpensive. Abraham Lincoln had a pet turkey “Tom” who tended to the white house lawn.
The American Poultry Association recognizes eight breeds of domestic turkeys. These breeds were variously popular in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries but became largely moribund during the late twentieth century with the rise of the Broad-Breasted white. Most varieties nearly went extinct– however a recent fad for heritage turkeys during the holidays (and a growing trend for backyard poultry) has created a niche market for these historical turkeys.
Here is the first half of a gallery of turkey breeds:
The Royal Palm was not a meat bird but was bred for selected ornamental characteristics. The toms are usually less aggressive than other male turkeys and the females are said to make solicitous and conscientious mothers.
The American Turkey Association first recognized the Slate turkey in 1874. The turkey can range from pale gray (known as lavender) to a dark charcoal color.
To quote the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Narragansett color pattern contains black, gray, tan, and white. Its pattern is similar to that of the Bronze, with steel gray or dull black replacing the coppery bronze…. Narragansett turkeys have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production, and excellent meat quality.”
The White Holland turkey was the most popular table turkey during the early twentieth century largely because the pale pin feathers made the dressed carcass look neater. The White Holland turkey had a smaller body than the Large Breasted White Turkey but its head was more colorful, its beard was black and its legs were longer. This breed has primarily disappeared due to being bred into the Large Breasted White Turkey population.
That’s enough Turkey Breeds for one day, but don’t worry I will finish the second portion of this list before turkey day gets here!