Heritage Turkeys

Winter 2003-2004
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy conducted a census of turkeys in the winter of 2002-2003. The results are encouraging – and concerning. Populations of standard varieties of turkeys are increasing, but the number of hatcheries actually breeding standard turkeys is declining. While standard turkeys are being brought back from the brink of extinction, they are not yet safe from peril.

Breeding Populations Increasing

Turkeys produce many offspring in a single year, but most end up on our tables and never pass on their genes to another generation. ALBC, therefore, monitors breeding populations to determine the number of birds that are reproducing themselves. Fifty-two hatcheries and significant breeders of standard turkeys were contacted.

The results showed that heritage turkeys are increasing in total numbers. The rise in interest and demand, created by ALBC’s research and promotional efforts, has directly increased breeding populations of turkeys. In 1997 the census focused only on the eight varieties recognized by the American Poultry Association (APA): Beltsville Small White, Black, Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Slate, White Holland, Royal Palm and Bourbon Red. The 2003 census gathered data on all varieties of turkey except the industrial strains of the Broad Breasted White. Where data were available from both censuses, breeding populations are clearly increasing, from 82% to as much as 875%. Seven of the eight recognized varieties remain in the critical category despite their increasing populations. The exception, the Bourbon Red turkey, moved up from Rare to Watch. It has a reputation as a production bird and was used in ALBC’s study of turkeys on range. It was also featured on the Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste and promoted through their 2002 Thanksgiving heritage turkey project.

Varieties not recognized by the APA have been placed in the Study category with two exceptions. The Buff turkey was recognized by the APA until 1915. It was added to the ALBC Conservation Priority List in 1998, and placed in the Study category until population data were obtained. In 2000, it was moved from Study to Critical. Dr. Robert Hawes, professor emeritus of Poultry Science at the University of Maine, profiled both the Buff and Jersey Buff varieties in The Snood News (Fall 2002). While sharing some characteristics in color pattern and conformation, the two are genetically distinct. ALBC currently believes that the Buff turkey may be extinct and that the remaining buff flocks are Jersey Buff. So, ALBC now lists the Jersey Buff on the Conservation Priority List. (If you have or know of a flock of buff colored birds that you believe are Buff turkeys, we would like to hear from you.)

The White Midget was added to the list in 2000. It was developed by Bob Smyth at the University of Massachusetts in the early 1960s from a commercial white and exhibition Royal Palms. When the flock was dispersed, some ended up at the University of Wisconsin under the care of Dr. Bernie Wentworth. This variety is currently listed in the Critical category but needs additional evaluation.

Additional information about the remaining nonstandard varieties is needed, including DNA testing to determine their degree of relatedness. Virginia Tech is conducting some of these tests, so we hope to know more about these varieties over the next few years.

Fewer Breeders

Of the 52 hatcheries and breeders who were contacted or whom we attempted to contact:

• Only 15 reported maintaining breeding flocks of standard turkeys: 8 hatcheries and 7 individuals;

• 12 hatcheries sold turkeys produced by another hatchery;

• 4 hatcheries no longer breed or sell turkeys (3 of these participated in the 1997 census);

• 9 were out of business (5 of these had participated in the 1997 census);

• 6 could not be reached because of out-of-service phone numbers or addresses;

• 1 declined to provide information; and

• 5 require additional follow-up.

Hatcheries serve as the primary access to heritage turkeys for the public. Of the surveyed hatcheries, 20 sell turkeys, but only eight maintain breeding stock – that is fewer than half of the hatcheries with turkeys for sale. Of those eight, five provide eggs for hatching or drop-shipment for “sales-only” hatcheries. Only three of these five hatcheries served as significant sources of stock for “sales-only” hatcheries. This is of particular concern because the reliance on only three primary hatcheries for stock makes the entire population, already small in number, more vulnerable. Of additional concern is that since 1997, eight of the 25 hatcheries originally surveyed (nearly one-third) are now out of business or have stopped raising or selling turkeys.

Consolidation in breeding hatcheries and reliance on a few hatcheries to provide stock for other hatcheries puts heritage turkeys at risk. As hatcheries close, breeding stock is either dispersed or destroyed. The genetics of these birds can be lost unless flocks of these strains are maintained. In addition, as breeding populations are reduced to fewer geographic locations, disease and natural disaster pose greater threats.

The Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities Turkey Census

Paula Johnson conducted a census of turkeys in 1998, 1999 and 2000 for SPPA. The census focused on the inventory of stock held by individual breeders and a few hatcheries. Paula deserves special thanks for identifying breeders of several of the very rare patterns not included in the 1997 ALBC survey. These individual breeders are invaluable stewards. They often maintain varieties that are no longer popular, preventing their extinction. However, these individual breeders may be relatively inaccessible or unknown to the general public and are not set up for significant retail sales and long-distance shipping. The SPPA surveys, like those done by ALBC, generally showed an upward trend in population numbers, but the limited number of flocks remains a concern.


The work of conserving heritage turkeys is far from complete. If, through the efforts of hatcheries and the commitment and passion of individual breeders, the cycle of supply and demand for heritage turkeys continues to increase, turkeys may be restored to safe numbers and a secure niche in agriculture. For this to happen, current breeders must continue to maintain flocks of varieties even as they become popular, and avoid the temptation of switching to a more endangered variety. New breeders are also sorely needed: People are encouraged to acquire a passion for turkeys and to become breeders themselves. Finally, experienced turkey breeders are needed as mentors to share their expertise and their passion.

For more information, contact ALBC, PO Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312; Tel: 919-542-5704; Fax: 919-545-0022; or visit www.albc-usa.org.

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