Breed Profile: Turken Chicken
The Sublime Heat-Tolerance of the Naked Neck Chicken
Reading Time: 6 minutes
BREED: A Turken chicken has little or no plumage on the neck, giving an appearance similar to a turkey.
ORIGIN: This gene is present in many native chickens worldwide, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. It is likely to have originated in Asia. The founding population best known to breeders in Europe and America is the Transylvanian Naked Neck from the plateau surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, in Romania.
Archaeological finds of small-bodied chickens in the Carpathian Basin date back to the first century BCE. Chicken keeping must have already been common in the region before Magyars moved in at the turn of the tenth century. Magyars may have also brought fowl from the steppe east of the Carpathian Mountains. During Ottoman Empire rule (1541–1699), larger, red-eared Asian chickens were introduced. These may be the source of the naked neck gene which spread through Transylvania, Serbia, and Bosnia. Later, poultry arrived from western countries, during the Habsburg reign of Austria-Hungary. All of these influences melded to form the Transylvanian breed. Over centuries, the birds adapted to the damp, temperate climate, while foraging at range in the valleys and hilly plains.
How the Naked Neck Gained Breed Status
HISTORY: In the nineteenth century, naked-necked chickens were well known in Transylvania in various feather patterns, most commonly in white, black, or cuckoo. Here they were valued for their foraging ability in all weathers, while being disease resistant and economical to keep. Despite such thriftiness, they were prolific, even laying during winter. They grew quickly, brooded their own young, and their meat was highly appreciated. From the 1840s, one breeder worked to develop and improve the local chickens’ economic value, resulting in a cuckoo variety shown at the 1875 poultry exhibition in Vienna. A novelty to judges and European breeders, the exhibit caused a sensation, and the Transylvanian chicken became known throughout Europe. German breeders quickly appreciated it, developing the breed for production and distributing it widely around the turn of the nineteenth century.
Although Transylvania was part of Hungary at the time, the breed’s popularity did not catch on in its home nation, as few breeders favored its appearance. By the early twentieth century it was already endangered. Furthermore, foreign breeds, such as Langshan, Brahma, and Plymouth Rock, began to arrive and transform local stock.
Conservation of the Breed
In the 1930s, examples of native Hungarian hens, including those from Transylvania (which by now was part of Romania), were collected at the research institute at Gödöllő, Hungary. The gene bank’s aim was to protect historical breeds, through standardization of colors and body shape and improvement of egg production and body size, while preserving meat quality. These lines were propagated successfully and distributed throughout the country and abroad.
Although most of their stocks were destroyed in the Second World War, breed scientists managed to restore a large population by the 1950s of Buff, Cuckoo, and White varieties. However, even small farms began to replace their stock with imported hybrids during the 1960s. A government breeding authority stepped in during the 1970s to ensure preservation of heritage poultry breeds. The baton was passed to NGOs in the 1990s, with university and government support.
A breeders’ association, the Gödöllő research center, two Hungarian universities, and several private farms work together to preserve the breed. Equally in Constanța, Romania, original lines were recovered in the late 1960s and preserved.
Worldwide, both turken hen and turken rooster of many types have been found to cope well with heat. Research has focused on the effect of the gene for the naked neck trait on heat tolerance in commercial hybrids (both broilers and layers). Encouraging results suggest that lines with the gene adapt better to high temperatures and can maintain production. In addition, they save the energy needed for feather production in favor of growth and egg formation. Consequently, the naked-neck gene has been incorporated into both intensively-farmed hybrids and pasture-based regional types, such as the “Label Rouge” hybrids of France and the Pirocón Negro of Venezuela.
CONSERVATION STATUS: Although turken chickens are widespread and numerous worldwide, the Transylvanian landrace is under protection. In Romania, under 100 females and 20 males were purebred in each variety, as registered in Constanța in 1993, although their progeny is in the thousands. In Hungary there were over 4,000 of each variety in 2021, compared to 566 Black, 521 Cuckoo, and 170 White in 1994.
Is Every Turken Chicken Transylvanian?
BIODIVERSITY: The Transylvanian Naked Neck combines genes from European and Asian sources and shares a foundation with heritage Hungarian chickens. Its salient feature, a lack of feathering on the neck, is the result of a single dominant gene, which is inherited by crossbreeds. Dominance of this gene is incomplete: when an individual inherits two copies of the gene, there is very little or no feathering on the neck and under the thighs and breast. Naked regions are reduced in individuals who inherit only one copy of the gene, and they can be distinguished by a tuft of several dozen feathers at the front of the base of the neck. As the gene is so readily passed on and isolated through crossbreeding, a turken chicken from outside the gene bank may not necessarily be descended from the Transylvanian bird.
Characteristics of The Transylvanian Naked Neck
DESCRIPTION: Sturdy, well-muscled oval body, sloping slightly to the rear. The head is feathered, but the face, neck, and crop are bare. A few feathers may be seen at the base of the neck. The skin on the face, ears, crest, and wattle is red. Eyes are orange-red. The rooster has a bright red neck, while the hen’s is slightly paler. Not apparent until handled is the lack of feathers along the underside of the body. The feathers fit close to the body.
VARIETIES: Black, White, and Cuckoo are bred in Romania and Hungary, although other colors have been known. The APA accepts Black, Buff, Red, and White.
SKIN COLOR: Hungarian breeders prefer white skin, legs, and beak, except for the Black variety which has slate-gray beak, shank, and toes. However, yellow legs and beak can occur in the paler breeds and were observed as early as the 1950s.
COMB: Single, medium-sized.
POPULAR USE: Dual-purpose farmyard or homestead fowl.
EGG COLOR: Cream to tinted.
EGG SIZE: Large, from 2 oz. (55–70 g).
PRODUCTIVITY: 140–180 eggs per year. Chicks grow and mature quickly. Some hens go broody and make good mothers.
WEIGHT: In Romania, purebred roosters average 4 lb. (1.8 kg) and hens 3.3 lb. (1.5 kg), while in Hungary and Germany roosters are 5.5–6.6 lb. (2.5–3 kg) and hens 4.4–5 lb. (2–2.3 kg). The APA standards recommend 8.5 lb. (3.9 kg) for roosters and 6.5 lb. (3 kg) for hens, cockerels 7.5 lb. (3.4 kg), and pullets 5.5 lb. (2.5 kg). Bantams are also bred.
TEMPERAMENT: Calm, friendly, and easy to tame.
ADAPTABILITY: The Transylvanian breed is well adapted to its native landscape and climate. It fairs well through cold winters, during snow and rain, with minimal protection and little input from its keepers, and is self-sufficient all year round. However, there is more to its genetic makeup than just the naked neck gene, as it has evolved hardiness from hundreds of years free-ranging. Turkens in other regions have proven their tolerance to heat, but consideration for their lack of insulating feathers is needed in very cold climates, and protection required.
- Szalay, I., 2015. Old Hungarian Poultry in the 21st Century. Mezőgazda.
- Bodó, I., Kovics, G., and Ludrovszky, F., 1990. The Naked Neck Fowl. Animal Genetic Resources Information, 7, 83–88.
- Merat, P., 1986. Potential usefulness of the Na (naked neck) gene in poultry production. World’s Poultry Science Journal, 42(2), 124–142.
- FAO Domestic Animal Diversity Information System
- Association of Hungarian Small Animal Breeders for Gene Conservation
Originally published in the August/September 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.