Breed Profile: Black Turkey

The Black Spanish Turkey Preserves Our Ancient Heritage

Breed Profile: Black Turkey

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Breed: The Black turkey is also known as Black Spanish turkey or Norfolk Black turkey. It is a heritage variety.

Origin: Wild turkeys are native to North America, but modern domestic turkeys have descended from the South Mexican subspecies. They were first domesticated by Mesoamerican cultures in Central America 2000 years ago for meat, eggs, and feathers. In the early sixteenth century, Spanish explorers noted wild and domestic turkeys, including rare black individuals among those with the more common bronze plumage.

How Turkeys Traveled Around the World

History: In the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers regularly took turkeys from Mexico back to Spain. Turkeys quickly spread over Europe. The Spanish and English favored black coloring, which was also popular in France and Italy. In East Anglia, England, and particularly in the county of Norfolk, this variety was developed as a meat bird, leading to the Norfolk Black. From the seventeenth century onward, the Norfolk Black and other European varieties arrived at the eastern seaboard of North America with colonists. Black turkeys were bred with native wild turkeys to form the founding stock for the American variety. The American Poultry Association accepted the standard for the Black in 1874.

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Although not as popular as other heritage breeds, such as Bronze, it was bred for commercial meat production up to the mid-twentieth century, when broad-breasted varieties were developed. By the 1960s, consumers preferred the paler carcasses of large white turkeys and traditional breeds fell out of fashion. Turkey production intensified, and today only a few genetic lines of broad-breasted whites are used for all industry production. However, these lines produce birds that cannot breed naturally, forage effectively, or survive without intensive management.

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Black hen in foreground with poult to the left. Bronze hen behind.

Will Turkeys Lose the Skills to Survive?

While industry turkeys are very productive in controlled conditions, we need to maintain productive varieties that retain the ability to breed naturally, raise young, and support themselves at range. Such self-sufficient animals are vital for conserving a gene pool of traits that can adapt to future changes. In 1997, The Livestock Conservancy conducted a census of breeding stock of traditional turkeys in hatcheries and found only 1,335 head across all varieties. It began to actively promote the breeding and marketing of heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. By 2006, the total of heritage breeding birds had increased to 10,404. However, this dropped to 738 in 2015.

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Self-sufficient heritage turkeys foraging in woodland.

Conservation Status: Classified as threatened on The Livestock Conservancy’s conservation priority list. The organization promotes breeding rugged, robust, and productive birds. Not only have heritage turkey varieties become endangered, but much knowledge of traditional husbandry relevant to these birds is out of print. The Livestock Conservancy has pooled traditional and modern knowledge and compiled manuals and free downloads for turkey breeders and keepers.

In the UK, the Norfolk Black turkey is at risk of extinction and is prioritized on the Watchlist of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Biodiversity: Although considered varieties of a single breed, heritage turkeys conserve important survival traits lost to industrial strains.

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The Features of the Black Turkey

Description: Red head and neck (changeable to bluish-white), dark eyes and black beak. The plumage is dense metallic black with a green luster. Poults have creamy-white head coloring and may have some white or bronze feathers, although these change as they molt. Shanks and toes may be initially black but change to pink as they mature.

Skin Color: White with dark pin feathers and sometimes dark spots on skin.

Popular Use: Premium-quality meat, insect control.

Egg Color: Cream to medium brown with spotting.

Egg Size: 2.5–2.8 oz. (70–80 g).

Productivity: Poults reach market weight at 28 weeks. Hens mature from one year old, laying in spring and summer. They lay 40–50 eggs per year during their first two years, then fewer as they age. If brooding their own eggs, you can expect 20–25 eggs per year. Hens remain productive for 5–7 years. Norfolk Black strains may lay 65 eggs per year.

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Heritage hens brood in a hidden nest and raise their own poults.

Weight: Mature toms weigh up to 33 lb. (15 kg), mature hens 18 lb. (8 kg), and market weight is 14–23 lb. (6–10 kg). In the UK, standard weights are 25 lb. (11 kg) for toms, 14 lb. (6.5 kg) for hens, and 11–22 lb. (5–10 kg) for market.

Temperament: Generally calm, but varies according to breeder selection. Most can be tamed for handling.

The Vital Strengths of Heritage Turkeys

Adaptability: With a robust immune system and excellent foraging skills, heritage turkeys are adapted to pasture-based systems, and are great hunters of insects. They suit most climates, but suffer frostbite in extreme cold. Large birds are susceptible to heat stress, but cope given shade and ample water. They also appreciate rudimentary shelter from the rain and snow. Well-balanced selection produces better mothers, as larger hens can be clumsy and break eggs. Slower growth develops sound muscles and skeleton which endow hardiness and longevity, and enable birds to breed naturally. They also retain the ability to fly.

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Heritage turkeys are able to fend for themselves at range.

Quote: “The Black turkey is in need of more stewards. A renewed interest in the biological fitness, survivability, and superior flavor has captured consumer interest and created a growing market niche. This personable, attractive bird can recover to its early twentieth century status with the help of a few more conservation-minded producers.” The Livestock Conservancy.

Sources

  • The Livestock Conservancy
  • FAO
  • Roberts, V., 2008. British Poultry Standards. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Speller, C.F., Kemp, B.M., Wyatt, S.D., Monroe, C., Lipe, W.D., Arndt, U.M., and Yang, D.Y., 2010. Ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis reveals complexity of indigenous North American turkey domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(7), 2807–2812.
  • Kamara, D., Gyenai, K.B., Geng, T., Hammade, H., and Smith, E.J., 2007. Microsatellite marker-based genetic analysis of relatedness between commercial and heritage turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). Poultry Science, 86(1), 46–49.
  • Lead photo credit: David Goehring/flickr CC-BY 2.0.

Originally published in the October/November 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Up close with Black turkeys in Finland.
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