Heritage Breed Turkeys: Kentucky’s Bourbon Red Turkey

A short look at one breed of heritage turkeys, the Bourbon Reds.

Reader Contribution by The Historic Foodie
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by Pexels/Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

Wondering which of the heritage breed turkeys is best for you? Consider the Bourbon Red turkey, a free-ranging bird that is making a comeback on small farms.

Early publications place the origins of the Bourbon Red turkey in Bourbon County, Kentucky, probably a cross between the wild turkeys found in mountainous areas of Kentucky and the white domestic. The American Standard of Perfection accepts their creation in Bourbon County from the wild yellow turkey. From Kentucky, the turkeys were distributed into Ohio and other locales. They were admitted to the American Standard in 1910 and were thought likely to supersede the Jersey Buff.

There are contradictory published accounts of the origins of this majestic bird. One school of thought places their creation in Pennsylvania where it descended from the Tuscarora red and Buffs. That account states that from Pennsylvania, the breed was taken to Kentucky where the color was enhanced.

Bourbon Red Turkey

Bourbon Reds were thought to be more disease-resistant than other breeds at a time when the bronze was dying from a disease called blackhead.

Advantages of the Reds include pin feathers that “did not show as plainly as darker colored birds, being nearly the color of the skin,” and that poults were larger when hatched and more free from disease. One breeder said the hens laid larger clutches of eggs, up to as many as 30, and they were great rangers, always returning at night. “They are well feathered, and endure the cold winters without shelter. They make fine market birds, having plump, yellow-skinned carcasses….” The breeder went on to say that if there was a plentiful supply of grasshoppers and other insects, berries, etc. the turkeys required no feeding at all.

Bourbon Reds were described in the Standard of Perfection as being “deep brownish-red” with the head being rich red changeable to bluish white.” The throat wattle is “rich red changeable to bluish white.” The wing bows are “deep brownish red; primaries and secondaries white.” The tail is white. Shanks and toes are reddish-pink. When the males drop their wings, the white feathers stand out against the deep cinnamon color giving them a remarkable appearance.

Why Heritage Breed Turkeys?

As was noted in early sources, the reds don’t mature as fast as the assembly-line white broad-breasted, so if your only consideration is making a fast buck, then the breed probably isn’t for you.

If, however, you appreciate the beauty and the personal characteristics of heritage breeds, then you might look a little closer.

A true heritage breed is defined as one that reproduces naturally and grows slowly, feeding on its own in the outdoors. Mine meet those requirements although I do keep them in a movable enclosure to keep my girls from flying off to join their wild counterparts. Their pen can easily be moved as often as I choose so that they have access to tender, fresh, clean grass.

Toms top out at about 23 pounds, hens at around 12, down somewhat from 100 years ago when the toms often reached 30 pounds. Reds are on a “watch” list meaning that while they aren’t common enough to become lost in the shuffle, they aren’t critically endangered either, and I like being able to keep this fine old standard going.


“The Country Life.” Vol. 23. November 1912.

McGrew, Thomas Fletcher. The Book of Poultry 1921.

“The American Standard of Perfection.” 1910.

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