Narragansett Turkeys

Narragansett Turkeys

by Ingrid Butler Narragansett turkeys are a historically significant turkey breed. They may have originated as a crossbreed between the eastern wild turkey and the English turkey breed Norfolk Black. Their name is derived from Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island; in fact, it is likely that this heritage breed comes from either Rhode Island or Connecticut.  

Narragansett turkeys are most commonly used for meat production. While their temperament is dependent on the breeder, they have a reputation for being calm and good mothers. They produce large eggs that vary in coloring from light cream to medium brown.  

Narragansett turkeys were a perennial favorite throughout the Midwest, New England, and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. Narragansett turkeys were the second largest turkey breed after the Bronze, and they were recognized as a distinct breed by the American Poultry Association in 1874. Hens reached between 12 to 16 pounds, while toms ranged between 22 to 28 pounds. Because Narragansett turkeys were able to handle cold weather, they were largely kept outdoors and obtained most of their own food by foraging for insects. Sadly, they fell out of favor at the turn of the twentieth century, as the popular Bronze turkey took over as the choice bird. 

Fortunately, Narragansett turkeys have been revived as a heritage breed since then. While the standard weight for these birds is now 16 pounds for hens and 23 pounds for toms, the weight of mature birds can trend lower.  For their color palette, the Narragansett turkey has similar markings to the Bronze turkey and has white, brown, black, and grey feathers. A genetic mutation unique to Narragansett turkeys in the United States gives them white wing bars instead of bronze ones.  

Today, the Narragansett turkey is a wonderful alternative to the broad-breasted white turkeys that dominate the market today. The broad-breasted white turkeys are the result of crossbreeding in the mid-twentieth century. In terms of meat, heritage turkeys also tend to have gamier, more flavorful meat than the broad-breasted white turkeys, and their market weight tends to be smaller. The broad-breasted white turkeys also mature quickly, taking only 14 to 18 weeks to reach 32 pounds, as compared to heritage turkeys, which tend to take roughly double the time—26 to 28 weeks—to reach their market weight.  

This rapid growth comes at a cost, however. Unlike the heritage turkeys, the broad-breasted white turkey cannot reproduce without human assistance.  They also are unable to fly, unlike heritage turkeys and wild ones. If their growth is too rapid, the broad-breasted white turkeys also risk health complications, such as joint injuries, particularly since the majority of their growth is in the chest area.  

By preserving heritage turkeys, including the Narragansett turkey, we ensure that these marvelous and delicious birds are available for future generations to enjoy. While they may not be optimized for commercial production like the broad-breasted white turkeys have been, heritage turkeys are ultimately healthier birds that are able to express their natural instincts. 

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