Breed Profile: Standard Bronze Turkey
An American Heritage Turkey Worthy of Conservation
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BREED: The heritage Bronze turkey is termed “standard,” “unimproved,” “historical,” or “natural mating”, as it can propagate naturally and remains hardy in an outdoor environment. This is in contrast to the “Broad Breasted,” which requires artificial insemination and approaches the limits of biological viability.
ORIGIN: Early civilizations in Mexico and Central America domesticated the south Mexican wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo) at least 2,000 years ago. Bones of this species discovered at an ancient Mayan site in Guatemala imply that these birds were traded outside their natural habitat at this time. In the early 1500s, Spanish explorers came across both wild and domestic examples. Local communities kept turkeys of several color variants for meat and used their feathers for decoration and ceremonies. Examples were sent back to Spain from where they spread through Europe, and breeders developed different varieties.
By 1600, they were popular throughout Europe for celebratory feasts. As Europeans colonized North America, they brought along several varieties. Here, they found that native Americans hunted eastern wild turkey (the North American subspecies: Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) for meat, eggs, and feathers for costumes. Subspecies can interbreed and are only differentiated by their natural adaption to separate environments. Larger than the south Mexican subspecies and naturally iridescent bronze, the eastern wild was crossed with domestic imports to create the heritage varieties known in America today. The offspring benefited from hybrid vigor and increased genetic diversity, while maintaining a docile nature.
Domestic History of the Bronze Turkey
HISTORY: Domestic turkeys spread throughout the eastern colonies and were plentiful by the 1700s. Although Bronze birds were among the varieties kept, they were not named as such until the 1830s. Throughout the nineteenth century, they were developed and standardized with occasional crosses to the eastern wild turkey. In 1874, the APA adopted standards for the Bronze, Black, Narragansett, White Holland, and Slate turkey varieties.
Until the 1900s, turkeys were kept free-range for family consumption or commercial produce. Selection for form, color, and productivity accelerated in the early part of the century as exhibitions became popular. Selection for larger size and wider breasts commenced with the goal of increasing the quantity of white breast meat per bird. Oregon and Washington breeders developed a larger, faster-growing bird, the Mammoth Bronze. In 1927, broader-breasted lines in both Bronze and White were imported from Cambridgeshire, England, to Canada. These were crossed with the Mammoth in the U.S. and further selected for massive breast muscles, resulting in the Broad Breasted Bronze around 1930, followed by the Broad Breasted or Large White around 1950. These strains completely replaced the standard varieties commercially. By the 1960s, consumers preferred the Large White, as its carcass lacked the dark pin feathers of the Bronze.
Few breeders continued to keep traditional lines for home consumption and shows. Fortunately, this century has seen a resurgence of demand for the better flavor, biological fitness, and self-sufficiency of the heritage birds.
Saving Heritage Varieties
CONSERVATION STATUS: The Livestock Conservancy (TLC) and Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities (SPPA) censuses of 1997 revealed very low numbers of standard varieties, being kept by very few breeders. This put the gene pool in danger of extinction through disaster or management decisions. Indeed, SPPA President Craig Russell wrote in 1998, “I know of several cases in which important collections of old fashioned farm turkeys have been simply terminated by the universities that had formerly kept them.”
TLC recorded 1,335 females of all heritage varieties in hatcheries, while SPPA counted 84 male and 281 female Standard Bronze between 8 breeders (hatchery or private). TLC launched its campaign to encourage homestead and commercial appreciation of heritage lines, resulting in an increase in breeding populations (4,412 in 2003 and 10,404 in 2006 of all heritage varieties). The FAO records 2,656 Standard Bronze in 2015. Its current status is “watch” on the TLC Conservation Priority List.
BIODIVERSITY: Industry birds are descended from very few lines, in which genetic diversity is severely reduced through intensive breeding for production. Heritage varieties are the source of biodiversity and robust traits. However, the heritage gene pool was seriously diminished when traditional birds lost commercial favor. Care is needed to avoid inbreeding between related lines, focusing on maintaining hardiness, natural breeding, and effective motherhood. If birds become too heavy, these traits are compromised.
Characteristics of the Bronze Turkey
DESCRIPTION: The plumage consists of dark-brown feathers with glossy metallic sheen, giving a bronze appearance, tipped with a black band. The male develops a deeper sheen with glints of red, purple, green, copper, and gold. Wing coverts are glossy bronze, while flight feathers are barred white and black. The tail and its coverts are striped black and brown, crowned with a wide bronze band, then a narrow black band, and tipped with a wide white band. Female coloring is more muted, with faint white lacing on the breast.
SKIN COLOR: White. Bare skin on the head varies between white, blue, pink, and red, depending on emotional state. Dark pin feathers may pigment the skin.
POPULAR USE: Meat within a free-range, sustainable system.
EGG COLOR: Cream to mid-brown and speckled.
EGG SIZE: Large, approximately 2.5 oz. (70 g).
PRODUCTIVITY: Heritage birds grow slower than industrial lines, reaching table weight at around 28 weeks. However, their productive life is longer. Hens lay most within their first two years (20–50 eggs per year), but continue laying for 5–7 years, while toms breed well for 3–5 years.
WEIGHT: The APA Standard recommends 36 lb. (16 kg) for mature toms and 20 lb. (9 kg) for adult hens. This is currently more than most heritage birds and less than broad-breasted lines. For example, at the Pennsylvania Farm shows 1932–1942, traditional toms averaged 34 lb. (15 kg) and hens 19 lb. (8.5 kg). Similarly, target market weight is 25 lb. (11 kg) for toms and 16 lb. (7 kg) for hens, but heritage birds are often lighter at 28 weeks.
TEMPERAMENT: Active and curious. Docility depends on breeder preferences.
The Value of Heritage Turkeys
ADAPTABILITY: Heritage turkeys are hardy at range, good foragers, and are largely self-sufficient. They mate naturally, brood chicks, and make good mothers. They prefer to perch in trees or airy structures. However, they can suffer frostbite in extreme cold or poorly ventilated enclosures. Shade and shelter help them avoid excess heat and inclement weather.
Although excellent mothers, larger birds can be clumsy and break eggs. Broad Breasted lines have lost the ability to mate because intensive selective breeding has reduced the keel bone and shanks while increasing breast muscle. This has also led to leg problems and a loss of immunity and self-sufficiency. Since the 1960s, industrial strains have been maintained using artificial insemination.
QUOTE: “This [conservation] effort is going to be important in maintaining many of these varieties as reserves of naturally-mating turkey genetic resources, which is vitally important to the overall genetic diversity within this agriculturally important species.” Sponenberg et al. (2000).
- Sponenberg, D.P., Hawes, R.O., Johnson, P. and Christman, C.J., 2000. Turkey conservation in the United States. Animal Genetic Resources, 27, 59–66.
- 1998 SPPA Turkey Census Report
- The Livestock Conservancy
Lead photo by Elsemargriet from Pixabay.
Originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.