Heritage turkeys are long-lived, slow-growing and endangered to various degrees but these historic turkey breeds are increasingly being recognized as welcome alternatives to industrially-bred turkeys.


The Top Ten Heritage Turkey Breeds

Auburn Turkey
Although Auburn turkeys have been referenced in written records since the late 18th century, this reddish-brown feathered domestic turkey is today one of the rarest of the designated heritage breeds. Auburn (also known as Light Brown) turkey toms can weigh up to 35 pounds. (heritage turkey image via PBase)     


The Top Ten Heritage Turkey Breeds

Buff Turkey
Buff turkeys derive from the mid-Atlantic region and are known for their abundance of white pinfeathers. The Buff was listed as a heritage breed by the American Poultry Association in 1874 but as relatively few birds could meet the APA's strict Standard of Perfection requirements, they were removed from the Standard and became extinct. Efforts to revive the breed began in the 1940s with the so-called Jersey Buff eventually emerging as a small-to-medium sized whose young toms weigh in at around 21 pounds. (heritage turkey image via Jurica Stosic)     


Black Turkeys

Black Turkey
Also known as the Black Spanish or Norfolk Black, Black turkeys descend from Aztec turkeys brought back to Europe by early Spanish explorers and conquistadors. This black-feathered heritage breed was then taken to the New World and one may have served as the first “Thanksgiving Turkey” enjoyed by the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony. Black turkeys are relatively common in Europe though they have become rare in North America. (heritage turkey image via Hunter Desportes)             


Bourbon Red Turkey

Bourbon Red Turkey
Bourbon Red turkeys were developed in Kentucky and Pennsylvania through cross-breeding Buff, Standard Bronze, and White Holland Turkey heritage turkeys. The APA officially recognized the Bourbon Red as a distinct heritage variety in 1909. Today, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimates there are roughly 5,000 breeding birds in the country, making the Bourbon Red one of the most popular heritage turkeys in the United States. (heritage turkey image via Yumiko Yumiko)        


The Top Ten Heritage Turkey Breeds

Midget White Turkey
Considered to be the smallest of the acknowledged heritage turkey breeds, Midget White toms only weight about 13 pounds each – not much more than the largest chickens. Midget White turkeys were thought to be extinct until 2014, when about 90 of the birds were found on a farm in Alabama. (heritage turkey image via Grit and The Livestock Conservancy)   


Narragansett Turkeys

Narragansett Turkey
Prized for their even temperament and relative self-sufficiency in living off the land, Narragansett turkeys were originally developed by cross-breeding eastern wild turkeys with domestic turkeys. By the late 19th century, flocks of up to 200 Narragansett turkeys were common in New England and the breed could be found as far away as the Midwest. After falling into disfavor in the early 20th century, Narragansett turkeys have enjoyed a revival of late thanks to their aforementioned attributes and perceived tastefulness. (heritage turkey image via Cameron McCormick    


Royal Palm Turkey

Royal Palm Turkey
Royal Palm turkeys first appeared in the 1920s, on a farm in Lake Worth, Florida. These birds are raised for ornamental and display purposes more often then not; they're rather small as bred-for-the-table turkeys go. Royal Palm turkeys have contrasting feathers in bright white and metallic black – quite distinctive! As attractive as they are, however, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers this breed to be extremely rare. (heritage turkey image via Drew Avery)  


Slate Turkeys

Slate Turkey
Displaying ash-gray feathers that can reflect a bluish or slightly lavender tint in some lighting conditions, Slate turkeys are listed as “critically endangered” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. With that said, Slate turkeys are attracting interest from niche market poultry farmers due to their “biological fitness, survivability, and superior flavor” according to the ALBC. (heritage turkey image via Jean)    

Standard Bronze Turkey

Standard Bronze Turkey
Standard Bronze turkeys were originally developed in the Colonial era from native wild turkeys and birds brought over from England. In the early 20th century, an enhanced variety of the Standard Bronze dominated the commercial turkey industry until it was supplanted by the Broad-Breasted White, now the dominant industrial turkey. The ALBC currently lists the Standard Bronze as “critical” on their conservation priority listing but they do have one thing going for them: unlike overly-large industrial turkeys, Standard Bronze turkeys can still mate and reproduce without the need for artificial insemination. (heritage turkey image via bohringer friedrich)  


White Holland Heritage Turkeys

White Holland Turkey
Its name notwithstanding, White Holland turkeys have n established connection with the Netherlands other than the fact that the ancestors of this heritage breed were brought to North America from Europe and cross-bred with native wild turkeys. Subsequently, White Holland turkeys were developed into the commercial Broad-Breasted White variety. Though rare, White Holland turkeys are prized for their hardiness and large size – toms can weight up to 36 pounds. (heritage turkey cropped image via kirybabe)  

You may not be able to trace your ancestry back to the Mayflower but that doesn't mean you can't add heritage to your Thanksgiving meal. Heritage turkeys fit for the dinner table are available in your area and though it can take some searching, success is well worth it!