While most turkey hens will go broody—sitting on eggs—commercial breeds aren't suited for the backyard flock, unless it's with a "Tom" turkey of another breed for mating. That results in crossbred poults. Because of consumer meat demands, commercial breeds have very large breasts, making natural mating impossible. For backyard poultry keepers who don't want to deal with artificial mating, several heritage turkey breeds fill the bill for natural reproduction, broodiness and maternal instincts.
Narragansetts are among the easiest turkeys to raise, as they convert feed efficiently and possess outstanding foraging abilities. While this breed was the backbone of the earliest New England turkey production, by the early 20th century numbers had declined as turkey farmers bred larger birds with bigger breasts, to meet market demand. Narragansett hens tend to broodiness, as well as producing above-average numbers of eggs. The feather pattern of these birds includes white, black, gray and light brown.
Bourbon Reds, reddish-brown turkeys with white tail feathers, are among the larger heritage breeds. Bourbon Red hens tend to go broody earlier than other breeds, with good sitting tendencies and strong mothering instincts. Orginally developed in Kentucky in the late 19th century, the breed is undergoing a 21st-century renaissance. Their foraging abilities, docile temperaments and carcass taste make them a favorite of the poultry enthusiast.
Anyone who thinks "beautiful" and "turkey" shouldn't appear in the same sentence has never seen a Royal Palm. These relatively small birds sport white plumage with black feather edging. Since they are primarily an exhibition bird, the breast has not been overly developed, as in commercial varieties. Besides adding beauty to the barnyard, Royal Palm hens go broody often and have good maternal instincts. This breed excels at foraging and is also good for bug control.
The rare breed known as the midget white is indeed small. It looks like a miniature version of the commercial broad-breasted white turkey, but without the extreme breast development, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Developed in the early 1960s as a cross between commercial turkeys and the Royal Palm, the breed never caught on as a small table bird. Midget white hens are quite fertile and prolific, easily going broody. Their calm nature makes them a good choice for the backyard flock.
- Mother Earth News: Heritage Turkey Breeds: Which One is Right for You?
- Hybrid: Broodiness in Turkeys [PDF]
- American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: Turkeys: Royal Palm
- American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: Bourbon Red Turkey
- American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: Midget White Turkey
- American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: Turkeys: Narragansett
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Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.