Is That Really a Heritage Turkey?

A quick primer on turkey origins, a discussion of the different types of species, and, as you shop for the highlight of your Thanksgiving meal, a bit of advice for finding a true heritage turkey


Perhaps you feel like you're seeing colorful turkeys everywhere these days. Wild turkeys have rebounded in many parts of the United States as, apparently coincidentally, interest in meat from heritage turkeys has surged. Some turkey meat is marketed as coming from this or that breed, while not from true heritage turkeys. Here's a quick primer on turkey origins and some advice for finding a true heritage turkey for your Thanksgiving.

All turkeys originated from the Americas. There were at least five distinct types of wild turkey, covering territories from Central America to New England. Scientists actively debate precisely where these turkeys ranged, but there is no doubt that when Europeans arrived turkeys were abundant in vast swaths of what would become the United States. Colonist Thomas Morton recounted Native Americans telling him that every day in the woods of Massachusetts they saw more turkeys than they could count. Colonial hunters took advantage of the bounty and reported killing thirty or more turkeys a day. By 1851, the wild turkeys of Massachusetts had been wiped out. A similar scenario unfolded in other parts of the northeast.

If a heritage turkey is in your plans, you can ensure you're really getting one if you can find turkeys certified by APA or ALBC.

Domesticated turkeys, by contrast, were thriving. Central American Mayans may have been the first turkey domesticators, tending two distinct turkey species long before the Spanish arrived. Southwestern peoples, including the Taos, Zuni, and Hopi later kept turkeys as well, largely for their ornamental feathers. European explorers transported turkeys back to their homelands and domesticated turkeys soon became widely disseminated in Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and England. Some were eventually transported back to the colonies; the Mayflower is believed to have carried some domesticated turkeys. Early settlers commonly raised them on American farms.

From this complicated past, several varieties have emerged, although there is understandable uncertainty about their precise origins. (Note that the American Poultry Association, the official arbiter of poultry breeds, currently does not recognize the various types as distinct breeds, recognizing only turkey "varieties.") The most successful have been the Bourbon Red, Standard Bronze, and Narragansett. The latter two are believed to descend from a strain developed in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay region. The line was probably a cross between turkeys brought from Europe and wild American turkeys. Narragansetts and Standard Bronze turkeys, even more so, closely resemble wild turkeys, with Narragansetts being slightly smaller with feathers lighter and grayer in color.

Another significant variety is the Bourbon Red, a turkey that tends to be a bit smaller than other domesticated varieties, with mostly brownish-red feathers and areas of white on the wings and tail. As one might expect, this variety was developed in Kentucky (as well as Pennsylvania) in the late 19th century. Bourbon Reds are believed to be the most prevalent heritage variety on U.S. farms today.

Heritage turkey meat is prized for its succulence and flavor. When Gourmet's somewhat skeptical former senior editor, Jane Daniels Lear, tested one in her kitchen, she concluded, "The turkey was fabulous, its terrific flavor amplified by the fact that it was beautifully moist and tender."

What makes individual birds true "heritage turkeys" is somewhat up for debate and in the beholder's eyes. But there are things that can clearly be ruled out as legitimate. Especially troubling is a turkey often referred to as a "bronze turkey," which looks, superficially at least, like the Standard Bronze but has only 1/16 of heritage-breed genetics. The other 15/16 are Broad Breasted White, the variety used by every industrial turkey company in the country.

Presented by

Nicolette Hahn Niman

Nicolette Hahn Niman is a livestock rancher, environmental attorney, and author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (2009). More

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

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