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.

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.

When I asked Frank Reese, the Kansas-based godfather of American heritage turkeys, for his opinion on what makes a turkey authentically heritage he said he's seen many false claims of early lineage. He considers the American Poultry Association (APA), which has set standards for U.S. poultry breeds since 1874, the only valid certifier of true old varieties. "I don't use the term 'heritage' myself," he told me, "because anyone can make that claim. I call them 'standard bred,' meaning they meet the APA standards. That has 130 years of power." Reese's own turkeys (and chickens) have been certified by APA, a process that required APA officials to visit his farm.

Another organization creating turkey standards is the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC), an organization dedicated to preserving older strains of poultry and livestock. ALBC cites three main criteria for heritage turkeys. First, the bird must be capable of natural reproduction. As bizarre as that sounds, modern strains are unfit for natural mating and must all be artificially inseminated. Second, birds must be capable of successful reproduction over a span of years. Again, this concern arises from problems with the dominant modern turkey strain, whose selection has resulted in birds with drastically curtailed reproductive lifespans. Finally, birds must grow at a healthy (read: slower) rate.

This last point is critical. The extremely rapid growth of industrial type turkeys -- due, in addition to breeding, to feeds that include growth simulators, like antibiotics -- is a major cause of animal welfare problems. Industrial strains are incapable of flight and often have difficulty just walking as they mature. Many have brittle bones that are not strong enough to support their body mass. Slower growth is also the main reason older turkey varieties cost so much more at the grocery checkout. Twice the maturation time means twice the feed, twice the labor, and higher costs for physical infrastructure and other overhead.

Of course, few people have the time or inclination for detailed detective work about the life of the turkey that will grace their Thanksgiving table. 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. Otherwise, speaking directly with a farmer or trusted retailer is probably the best approach. Frank Reese urges consumers to "get to know your farmer." Simply finding out where and how the turkey was raised and whether it is the result of artificial or natural breeding would be a good place to start. Natural reproduction is a good indicator that the birds in question have sound bodies and, consequently, had healthier, higher welfare lives.

And as for those wild turkeys... your eyes are not deceiving you. They have made an extraordinary resurgence. Restoration efforts by various state natural resources departments have finally yielded fruit in recent decades. Massachusetts' population began rising in the early 1970s and now numbers around 20,000. New York state, whose wild turkeys had been eliminated by the mid-1840s, now has an estimated population of over 250,000. Whatever you'll be seeing on your table this Thursday, you might well have seen a colorful turkey in your neighborhood.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.