Conserving Turkeys of Thanksgivings Past for the Future

The Livestock Conservancy maintains a list of Heritage Chicken breeders in its Breeders Directory. You can visit the online directory or if you wish to receive a printed copy please consider joining the Conservancy.

Some Heritage Chickens can be obtained from hatcheries. Below is a downloadable list of chicken hatcheries. The Livestock Conservancy encourages contacting the hatchery directly to determine the breeds of birds available and to determine whether these are in fact Heritage Chickens.

Download Hatchery List (56 KB PDF)

A Brief Timeline of the Domesticated Turkey

2000 years ago Domestication of the turkey by Aztecs in Mexico and Mayans in Central America

Early 1500  Cortez and Spanish explorers find both wild and domesticated turkeys

1500 – 1519   Turkey first taken back to Spain

1500s    Several European varieties were developed including:
• Norfolk Black
• Cambridgeshire Bronze
• White Austrian
• Buff
• Blue
• Ronquieres (a small variegated Belgian variety)

By 1600   Turkeys were found throughout Europe. Turkey was widely used in celebrations and holiday feasts and was well regarded for its sumptuous meat.

Early 1600 European varieties of turkeys return to North America with colonists.

1621 First Thanksgiving is celebrated at Plymouth Colony. According to folklore wild turkey was served as a main course.

By 1700   Domesticated turkeys were plentiful in the mid-Atlantic region and through the Coastal South.

October 3, 1789 George Washington declared a day of Thanksgiving.

October 3, 1863 Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  (This has been traditionally celebrated on the last Thursday of November.)

1874 The American Poultry Association (APA) was formed. They established and adopted Standards for five varieties of turkeys:
• Bronze
• Narragansett
• White Holland
• Black
• Slate

1909   Bourbon Red was accepted into the APA Standard of Perfection

1951   Beltsville Small White was accepted into the APA Standard of Perfection

1971   Royal Palm was accepted into the APA Standard of Perfection

1900s  Breeders in Washington and Oregon produced larger birds with broader breasts. These were called Mammoth Bronze.
1927  Jesse Throssel, an immigrant England to British Columbia, Canada, imported two lines of turkeys (a Bronze and a White) that had been selected for greater breast width. These were known as the Cambridgeshire lines.

Late 1930s  Cambridgeshire Bronzes had been crossed into the Mammoth Bronze population, including the renowned Wagon Wheel Ranch strain.

1938   Mrs. H. P. Griffin coined the term “Broad Breasted Bronze.” This was a commercial term that meant double-breasted in which mounds of muscle were on both sides of the keel bone.

1950s  Fertility troubles began to occur. Broad-breasted conformation brings with it a shorter keel bone and shorter shanks in addition to the bulkier muscle mass on the breast. This conformation prevents males from effectively mounting females, resulting in lower fertility rates. Industry began to perfect artificial insemination techniques to compensate.

1950s  Large, white feathered varieties were developed. These dressed-out more cleanly. Breeders competed at shows based on side-by-side comparisons of productivity. Breeders include: Amerine, Browning, Gozzi, Jerome, Jones, Keithly, Kimber, Lovelace, Lyons, Nicholas, Rose-a-Linda, and Wrolstad.

1960s  These large white turkeys began appearing in the market. At this time, most consumers purchased dressed birds based on carcass appearance. The white varieties were preferred because they lacked the dark pin feathers and melanin that remained in the carcass of colored feathered birds.

1960s  Artificial insemination became common practice among commercial breeders.

1997 The Livestock Conservancy conducted a census of Standard varieties of turkeys maintained by hatcheries. The total number of breeding birds of all Standard varieties was1,335. The Livestock Conservancy began actively promoting Heritage Turkeys.

2003 The Livestock Conservancy conducted a second census, including a survey of individual breeders. The total breeding birds of all standard and non-standard varieties was 4,412.

2004 – 2006 The Livestock Conservancy and Virginia Tech conducted research that demonstrated that Heritage Turkeys have more robust immune systems than industrial strains.

2006 The Livestock Conservancy conducted third census. The total breeding birds of all standard and non-standard varieties was 10,404.

Today’s International Turkey Industry

Today, only two international companies own most commercial turkey genetics, Aviagen, based in the United Kingdom, and Hybrid, based in Canada. Aviagen now owns the genetic resources of two previously significant commercial companies, Nicholas, from California, and British United Turkeys (BUT) from the United Kingdom. BUT had an American operation, including a breeding farm based in West Virginia. Both Nicholas and BUT offered multiple strains. When Nicholas bought BUT of America in 2004, the American breeding stock was destroyed. Aviagen subsequently purchased Nicholas. As of February 2009, the Aviagen website only offered two strains from each company for sale. This story is of great importance because it shows just how quickly genetic resources can be lost.

The Livestock Conservancy

The Livestock Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect over 180 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Included are donkeys, cattle, goats, horses, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. Founded in 1977, The Livestock Conservancy is the pioneer organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. Its mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.

Heritage Turkey Press Release (PDF)