Winter 2002-2003
Narrangansett turkey
A Narragansett turkey struts its stuff at Kelmscott Farm in Lincolnville. Bob Hawes photo.

By Bob Hawes

During 1996 and 1997, the seasonal poultry hatcheries in the United States were surveyed in cooperation with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) to determine the status of the non-commercial varieties of domestic turkey. Why worry about turkeys? There is certainly no shortage of these breasty birds in your local supermarket during the holiday period – or nearly any time of the year, for that matter. But are these holiday turkeys produced from a broad genetic background as their numbers would indicate? Probably not. Only three major companies in the world own 90% or more of the commercial breeding stock. They are: Nicholas Turkeys of Sonoma, California, and Ayshire, Scotland; B.U.T.A., of Lewisberg, W. Virginia; and Hybrid Turkeys of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and Boxmeer, The Netherlands. The turkeys produced by these companies are known merely as “Large Whites.” They are not a variety recognized by the American Poultry Association. Large companies have no incentive to maintain a recognized variety. The whole concept of “breeds” and varieties within breeds has been lost in the poultry industry, as we have moved from the individual or family-owned farm to the international mega-company. Now the company logo gives one bird an advertising advantage over another. Breed names do not identify breeders.

In her 1994 book entitled The Vanishing Feast, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent said, “The turkey should stand as a symbol of the success of modern animal breeding programs. But it is just as much a symbol of what’s wrong with present day animal breeding practices. Turkeys are the ultimate in breeding technology – they simply cannot survive without humans.” Well, it’s true that the Large White could not survive without the practice of artificial insemination, but the heritage varieties are doing very well using nature’s plan. One of the objectives of the ALBC is to help conserve these small animal populations that are no longer in the commercial mainstream. It is important that these varieties continue to be available to the small producer and to the turkey fancier. At the same time some of these “mating genes” should be preserved in the turkey just in case they are needed in some future generation.

The American Poultry Association recognizes eight varieties of turkeys: the Bronze, White Holland, Black (Black Spanish, Norfolk Black), Narragansett, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White and the Royal Palm. Other varieties that have been named are the Nebraskan, Jersey Buff, Black-wing Bronze and the Gray. Of these varieties, the Bronze and the White Holland have been, by far, the most important in the commercial industry. The Narragansett and the Bourbon Red have been secondary players but have not been involved in commercial operations since the 1950s.

The Beltsville Small White was an attempt by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to produce a family-sized bird. This variety came into commercial use in the early 1940s and its popularity lasted into the 1960s. While the small bird was a success for the family consumer, it was not a popular bird with the hotel and restaurant trade. The genetic material from this bird has been incorporated into a larger bird called simply “the Medium White.” The Slate and the Royal Palm were never important commercially but have been popular as exhibition varieties.

In 1924 the first “All-American Turkey Show” was held in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Displayed were 150 Mammoth Bronze, 30 White Holland, 26 Bourbon Red and 4 of the Narragansett variety. One poultry writer commented after the show regarding the Bourbon Red, “The standard for this variety is almost an impossible one (referring to the color pattern). I do not believe they will make much headway until it is changed.” The standard wasn’t changed and the Bourbon Red did not make much commercial headway.

By early in the 20th Century, breeders in Washington and Oregon began to put more emphasis on market type in the Bronze variety and less on exhibition points. In the 1920s this process was accelerated with the arrival of Jesse Throssel, an Englishman who settled in British Columbia. He brought with him two lines of turkeys (a bronze and a white) that had been selected for breast width at his home estate in Cambridge. These imported birds became known as the Cambridgeshire lines. By the late 1930s the Cambridgeshire Bronze had been combined with the market-type turkeys from the northwestern United States, and a bigger, broader version of the Bronze variety resulted. In 1938 a new organization was formed in the Northwest; this club discarded the showroom rules and concentrated on economic traits. The “Broad-Breasted Bronze” variety became the new commercial turkey replacing the “Standard” Bronze.

A few flocks of Standard Bronze have been maintained, and one is of particular interest to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The “Wishard” strain has been kept under a program of natural mating while at the same time being selected for some of the economic traits. In 1946 Charles Wishard of Prairie City, Oregon, started a flock of Bronze birds as a farm enterprise. Over the years he resisted the use of fancy housing, antibiotics and artificial insemination. In peak years up to 30,000 birds were raised annually. Now Charles’ son Mark manages the farm and maintains about 120 females and 30 males as a breeding flock from which about 2,500 birds are produced annually. The federal regulations regarding small slaughterhouses make it more difficult each year to carry on a family-size business of this type. We don’t know how long the Wishard strain will be available. More turkey stewards for this strain and other varieties are needed.

From the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Dept. at the University of Maine we conducted a turkey survey from Sept. 1995 to Jan. 1996 and from Jan. to Mar. of 1997. Two students in the Department helped with this work as part of their course credit. In 1995-96 Ann Trundy and in 1997 Jesse Babonis were major contributors.

Twenty-five hatcheries were contacted by telephone with follow-up calls to verify certain points. The number (25) constituted 90% or more of the U.S. seasonal hatcheries handling turkey poults and eggs at that time. These companies provide stock for the small flock owner, hobbyist and exhibition breeder. Very few of the commercial growers would be supplied by the hatcheries that we surveyed. Since that time, Paula Johnson, working with the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA), has done a similar survey (1999).

For the majority of the companies surveyed, turkeys were not a major concern. Turkeys have certain characteristics, compared with chickens, that tend to make them less popular:

1) They grow at a slower rate;

2) They mature much later;

3) Egg production in the turkey is about 50-80 eggs per year compared with the 250 expected for the laying hen;

4) Turkeys require a greater amount of space.

In spite of these differences, most of the major hatcheries still carry one or more turkey varieties. In addition, due to the recent increase in interest in the minor varieties, some hatcheries have increased the size of their breeding flocks or added an entirely new variety.

Of the 25 hatcheries surveyed, only eight actually carried their own breeding stock. Fifteen bought eggs from other hatcheries or private supply flocks, and two bought poults for resale. Two of the 25 hatcheries were going out of turkeys and were therefore not included in the results. (The three figures do not add up to 25 because two hatcheries bought eggs for some varieties, but also kept their own stock for other varieties.)

Of the eight hatcheries that owned breeding stock, five carried the Bronze variety; one carried the Large White, while only six maintained the minor varieties. With so few hatcheries carrying the minor varieties, the genetic base for these is pretty narrow.

The Bronze variety is probably the most popular with the small flock owner. Unfortunately of the 23 hatcheries selling Bronze poults, only five are maintaining their own breeding stock. We found just over 7000 Bronze females, which at first glance is encouraging, but, in fact, one farm owned about 90% of that total, leaving only 10% (about 640) divided over the other five farms. The SPPA survey later found only 335 Standard Bronze females. While we reported female numbers, we also counted males, and these amounted to about 10% of the number of females in most varieties.

Of the remaining rare varieties, the Bourbon Reds would appear to be in the best situation, with five farms owning 664 females. The SPPA survey found 782 females. Royal Palms were second in numbers but have little economic value, being primarily a decorative variety. We found 381 females, the SPPA found 794. One of the reasons that Paula Johnson and the SPPA survey generally reported more birds than the ALBC survey is because the SPPA included all breeders. In the ALBC/UMO survey we included only the regular hatcheries. We felt that these hatcheries were more able to supply poults and eggs over the entire season and were more readily available to the small producer.

The Black and Narragansett varieties were once commercially viable, and while Blacks were found at three hatcheries, keeping 62 females, the Narragansetts were found on only one and with only three females. The SPPA survey found 192 Black females and 60 Narragansett females. Slates were found on two farms, but they, like the Palms, were never a commercially important variety.

White Hollands were the only commercial white variety in the 1920s to 1940s. They have nearly disappeared as a named variety, but their genetic material has been blended with the Broad-Breasted Bronze to produce the present commercial Large White. The White Holland is in short supply. We found only four females. The SPPA turned up nineteen. None of the larger hatcheries offers this variety. White Hollands sometimes blend in with the commercial Large White. Birds shown at exhibitions as “White Hollands” are usually Large Whites; their wide breasts and short legs are indications of commercial breeding.

Finally, four varieties were not being sold or maintained by any of the hatcheries that we surveyed: the Black-wing Bronze, Jersey Buff, Beltsville Small White and the Nebraskan. Of these four we do know that breeders not considered as “hatcheries” are maintaining the Beltsville Small Whites, the Black-wing Bronze and the Buff, but in small numbers. Other varieties kept by a few dedicated breeders are the Lilac, Chocolate, Auburn and Gray.

The seasonal hatcheries and the private breeders are playing a major role in conserving some unique genetic material. None of the hatcheries we surveyed were doing crossbreeding, meaning that these varieties are being kept in a pure state. I was encouraged at the recent Boston Poultry Exhibition to see seven individuals exhibiting five varieties of turkeys, including the Narragansett and the White Holland. In the other three classes, Bronze, Royal Palm and Bourbon Red, there was actually competition. Only as long as there are people who admire this interesting bird will genetic diversity exist. No government or university conservation programs exist now, but interest is increasing just in the few years since we started drawing attention to the plight of these heritage varieties. Turkey keepers are doing a service for the future of avian genetic programs. In Maine several breeders are keeping heritage varieties. One example is the Kelmscott Farm in Lincolnville, which has been breeding Narragansetts as well as keeping the Royal Palm and the Slate as display varieties. We are still unable to cryopreserve avian gametes, and until that day arrives we will continue to depend on private breeders as keepers of the genes.

Bob Hawes is Professor Emeritus of Animal and Veterinary Science, Univ. of Maine.

Portions of this article were previously published in the ALBC Newsletter of Jan-Feb, 1998. To obtain a list of hatcheries offering the colored varieties of turkeys, or if you would like to be put on the mailing list for ALBC’s bi-annual turkey newsletter, “The Snood News,” contact the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312. Tel 919-542-5704, e-mail: [email protected], website:


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