Know Your Bird: What's Up With Heritage Turkeys?

By Joe Campbell posted 11-10-2022 11:37 AM

A narragansett turkey
A narraganset turkey

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning and falling, “All I Want for Christmas is You” looms overhead, and a single bird reigns supreme. Upon us is the Month of the Butterball, and we must pay tribute. Or do we? What if there’s another way? There’s much more to turkeys than meats (heh) the eye.

First, the obscurities – let’s start off with a few fun facts. Because why not?

  • Turkeys are native to the Americas and were first domesticated by Indigenous peoples up and down North and South America. Biologists believe the turkey breeding done by Indigenous peoples formed the foundation of the turkey breeding stock we use today!

  • Though Ben Franklin did not recommend the turkey as the national bird of the US, he did find it to be a “much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.

  • The fleshy attachment that hangs off the beak of male turkeys is called a “snood.” Biologists aren’t quite sure what it’s for. Don’t question the snood.

Now then. Onto this “other way.” That’d be heritage turkeys – once niche, still a little niche, but a growing market that brings an alternative to the artificially pumped-up, conventionally grown turkey many of us have grown so accustomed to.


What is a Heritage Turkey?

There are many characteristics that set heritage turkeys apart from conventional, but the first thing one might notice is the size. Heritage turkeys are turkeys that much more closely resemble their wild ancestors than a conventional bird. While conventional turkeys tend to have small legs and much larger breasts, heritage turkeys are overall smaller, have bigger, stronger legs, smaller breasts, and firmer meat as they live longer, more open lifestyles that allow their muscles to develop.

Heritage turkeys are also raised much more humanely than conventional. Instead of being penned-in and living their whole lives in restrictive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), heritage turkeys are raised more openly, living more like a wild turkey would, and grow much slower than conventionally raised turkeys. While it’s widely agreed that heritage turkey farming is much more sustainable and humane, it’s also important to note that heritage turkeys are not necessarily organic or free range.

The final major difference is the taste. While the jury is still out on nutritional differences, the taste doesn’t lie. Because of their smaller size, they can be cooked faster and more evenly, resulting in moister and tastier meat.


The Turkey Renaissance

For all intents and purposes, heritage turkeys are endangered. Historically, “niche” is an understatement. There was a time when heritage turkeys numbered around 1,500. Since 1997, the 12 varieties of heritage turkeys have grown 1000%, numbering 15-20,000. For reference, there are 280 million turkeys conventionally raised in the US every year.

Although there are some inconsistencies across sources as to which breeds are heritage breeds, many agree there are at least 10.

  • Slate Turkey
  • Midget White Turkey
  • Narragansett Turkey
  • Bourbon Red Turkey
  • Royal Palm Turkey
  • White Holland Turkey
  • Chocolate Turkey
  • Black Spanish Turkey
  • Standard Bronze Turkey
  • Beltsville Small White Turkey

It’s important to note that “heritage” isn’t a regulated certification like USDA Organic. While there is a definition, verifying the breed of turkey is more important than checking for “heritage” on the branding.


Why Buy Heritage?

From taste to ethics, there are many reasons to consider buying a heritage turkey this year.

First, while smaller, they are tastier and thought to be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts.

Second, they are raised without hormones (hence the smaller size) or antibiotics. They may not always be Certified Organic, but the lack of additives sets them apart from the crowd.

A black Spanish turkey

Third, shoppers who consider the ethics and environmental impact of their purchases will find heritage turkeys much more palatable. They are raised in spacious and humane lifestyles, and because they are not selectively bred for maximum meat, are not plagued by leg issues and excess weight-associated problems like conventional turkeys. This may appeal to the non-GMO shopper as well. Environmentally, heritage turkey breeding is much less intensive and more sustainable.

So consider giving a heritage turkey a shot this year! Heritage turkeys come with a slightly higher price tag, but that price reflects the care and quality that goes into raising these birds and supports the much smaller farms that raise them.

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