Breed Profile: Narragansett Turkey

The Narragansett Turkey Hen Makes a Wonderful Mother and Knows How to Thrive at Range

Breed Profile: Narragansett Turkey

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BREED: A heritage turkey variety, named for Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.

ORIGIN: All domestic turkeys are descended from the south Mexican wild turkey, first domesticated about 2000 years ago. They were mainly bronze, but several color variants already existed before they were exported to Europe by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century. These then spread across Europe, and British settlers brought domestic turkeys to New England in the 1600s. Here European varieties (most likely Norfolk Black) bred with the native eastern wild turkey, forming the basis of American varieties.

HISTORY: By 1700, domestic turkeys were common along the mid-Atlantic coast. Until the early 1900s, they ranged freely on subsistence and commercial farms, foraging for plants and insects with little supplemented feed. Several varieties arose through selection for form, color, and productive performance. This process accelerated in the early twentieth century with the dawn of exhibitions. In the Narragansett Bay region, a distinctive pattern of colors was refined, taking the region’s name in the 1830s, after the Bronze turkey was defined. Thus, the Narragansett turkey was one of the earliest U.S. varieties.

The Rise and Fall of Narragansett Turkey Production

Throughout the 1800s, the variety was improved for production and standardized. Accordingly, it became the foundation of the turkey production industry in New England. Although mainly present in Rhode Island and Connecticut, birds were also widely known in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. Although not as popular as the Bronze, they were well respected for their production qualities. In 1874, Narragansett was one of the first varieties to be recognized by the APA. At this time, flocks tended to be of 100–200 birds, descended from a dozen hens.

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Narragansett turkeys at Coggeshall Farm, Bristol, RI. Photo by ChefMattRock/flickr CC BY 2.0.

In the 1930s, the Narragansett was third national favorite after Bronze and White Holland turkeys. Then, selection for broad-breasted varieties with less visible pinfeathers led to the industrialization of production from the 1950s to present day. Consequently, commercial farms no longer used “Standard” turkey varieties and populations declined. Fortunes changed in the early 2000s, with a growing market niche for raising Narragansett turkeys and other natural-living, heritage birds of superior flavor, promoted by The Livestock Conservancy (TLC) and Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA).

CONSERVATION STATUS: Listed as “watch” on TLC Priority Conservation List and “vulnerable” by FAO. In 1952, numbers had already dropped to 2,576. The SPPA census of 1997 found only 87 breeding birds (60 hens, 27 toms) kept by eight breeders (hatchery and private), while TLC located only three hens in their census of hatcheries. In fact, TLC logged only 1,334 breeding birds of all Standard varieties as opposed to the broad-breasted type. Working tirelessly to promote heritage varieties, TLC recorded 10,404 Standard birds in 2006. Narragansett breeding birds rose from 331 in 2002 to 2,233 in 2015.

Narragansett Turkey Traits

DESCRIPTION: Steel gray or dull black replaces the coppery bronze of the Bronze variety. Feathers have black, gray, tan, and white stripes. There are tan bands in the tail and white wing bars. The beard is black and beak, horn colored. Shanks and feet are salmon in color. Pin feathers may be dark. This coloring is difficult to perfect and occasionally white replaces gray and tan.

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Photo courtesy of Stacy Benjamin.

SKIN COLOR: White, with red to bluish-white head.

POPULAR USE: Good-quality, flavorsome meat from self-sufficient birds in sustainable free-range systems and family farms.

EGG COLOR: Pale cream to medium brown, with spotting.

EGG SIZE: Large, ideally 2.5–2.8 oz. (70–80 g).

PRODUCTIVITY: Hens mature early and are excellent mothers, brooding their poults naturally. Egg production is good, laying an average of ten to a clutch. Hens lay 20–25 eggs per year if incubating naturally, more (40–50) if eggs are removed. Productivity drops after the first two years, but hens enjoy a long productive life of 5–7 years, and toms 3–5 years. Lifespan is up to 14 years.

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Photo courtesy of Stacy Benjamin.

WEIGHT: Young hens grow up to 14 lb. (6.4 kg) and toms 23 lb. (10.4 kg) at about 28 weeks. Slower growth gives their bodies time to develop strong bones and organs before gaining muscle. Adult hens weigh around 18 lb. (8.2 kg), toms up to 30 lb. (13.6 kg). Indeed, many homesteaders prefer the smaller size as it makes them more manageable.

TEMPERAMENT: Traditionally calm, but this depends on breeder selection priorities. Although active, they tend to keep to a home range. Heritage turkeys are communicative, with at least 15 different vocalizations and displays. Mothers are highly protective and poults may stay by their side for up to a year.

Important Qualities to Preserve

BIODIVERSITY: Heritage turkeys are able to forage, mate naturally, and raise their own young, whereas broad-breasted birds have lost the ability to mount. Although separation into varieties can isolate lines, leading to inbreeding and loss of diversity, maintenance of these lines with balanced selection goals preserves healthful and productive traits. As heritage varieties have become so rare, their populations have not been large enough for significant selection for utility traits, and consequently birds may be smaller than they once were until the gene pool has recovered. Current selection goals are good health, production, and natural mating ability.

narragansett-turkey-hen
Photo courtesy of Stacy Benjamin.

ADAPTABILITY: Native to eastern American states, but cope with most climates. However, fleshy heads are susceptible to frostbite in extreme cold, and large birds may suffer heat stress in hot climates unless provided with shade and water. Heritage birds have a more robust immune system than industrial strains and are able to mate naturally. In addition, they are fliers, often roosting in trees, and fast runners, able to avoid predators. Equipped with good eyesight and hearing, they are excellent foragers over large areas and enjoy woodland pasture.

QUOTE: “There are so many things that I enjoy about raising heritage Narragansett turkeys. Not only are they beautiful, but they have so many unique vocalizations and behaviors. They do everything in a big, charismatic way, and they add a lot of fun to the farm!” Stacy Benjamin, 5R Farm, St. Helens, OR.

Sources:

Lead photo by Cameron McCormick/flickr CC BY 2.0.

Originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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