The Narragansett Turkey Breed
Get acquainted with the iconic Narragansett breed, and meet one of its esteemed members, who's found a home and friends on a famous estate.
I lived in Rhode Island for much of my life, along beautiful Narragansett Bay, a large coastal area that has constant offshore breezes and once hosted the famous America’s Cup sailing tournaments. The bay was named for a local Native American tribe whose name roughly translates to “people of the small point.” The bay is a relatively protected body of water surrounded by land and filled with islands that create a mild climate, with cooler summers and warmer winters compared with the rest of the state.
This region was home to early large agricultural plantations of the Colonies, which produced some of the most iconic American poultry and livestock breeds. These include the Narragansett Pacer horse (now extinct), the Narragansett turkey, the Bronze turkey, the Rhode Island White chicken, and, perhaps the most famous chicken breed of all, the Rhode Island Red. The Narragansett turkey never became as famous as the Rhode Island Red, but it nonetheless made an impact on the turkey industry before the domination of the modern broad-breasted varieties that came into existence in the 20th century.
Turkeys are among the few species domesticated by Native American tribes in the Southwest and into Latin America. Early European explorers brought these birds back to Europe, where avid poultry breeders produced new varieties. Some of those new turkeys then returned to America and developed into the breeds and varieties we know today.
Image Jeannette Beranger
It’s speculated that the stunningly colored Narragansett turkey descends from a cross between an English breed known as the Norfolk Black, which came to the Colonies in the 1600s, and the native Eastern wild turkeys present throughout New England. Narragansetts’ color pattern includes black, gray, tan, and white. It’s similar to that of the Bronze, with gray or dull black replacing the bronze. Narragansetts have white wing bars, a red-to-bluish-white head, and salmon-colored shanks and feet. The standard live weight for mature toms is 33 pounds, and for hens it’s 18 pounds. If you grow them for the holiday market, you can expect young toms to reach about 23 pounds, and young hens to reach about 14 pounds.
Image Harper’s Weekly
The breed enjoyed local popularity for many years, until another variety was developed between 1830 and 1840 from the original Narragansett turkey stock. These birds were known as the Point Judith Bronze turkey (and later as the Standard Bronze). The Bronze turkeys were further selected for size and productivity. By 1860, they had become larger than other common domestic turkeys and wild turkeys in the United States. In the meantime, the Narragansett breed began to decline until few remained.
The Narragansett we know today arose from Standard Bronze turkeys that displayed their ancestral Narragansett coloration. They were considerably larger than the original bird of the same name.
For a time, the newer Narragansett breed enjoyed popularity in southern New England and in parts of the Midwest. According to an 1872 account by W.W. Clift in Poultry World magazine, the birds were “raised in greatest perfection in Connecticut and Rhode Island. … It was not uncommon to find flocks of one to two hundred birds, the product of a breeder flock of a dozen hens.” Of the breed, Clift wrote the following year, “On one farm an old tom dressed 36-1/2 pounds and on another four yearling toms averaged 31 pounds a piece.”
Despite the improved size, the Bronze prevailed in popularity over the new Narragansett, and in 1871, it was admitted to the American Poultry Association’s American Standard of Perfection. The Narragansett followed, recognized in 1874. The latest census of the Narragansett found approximately 2,200 breeding birds in the United States, placing the breed in The Livestock Conservancy’s “Watch” category of its Conservation Priority List.
In 2020, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) honored the Narragansett turkey by including it among the 10 new Forever Stamps celebrating heritage breeds in America. The USPS invited The Livestock Conservancy, where I’m program manager, to help plan the unveiling and launch of the stamps in a special event the following spring. We coordinated with George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia for the occasion, because it had representatives of a couple of the breeds on the property, and the estate offered a spectacular venue for the occasion. To make the day extra-special, we decided to bring in live representatives for the rest of the breeds depicted on the stamps, including a turkey. It was a bit of a challenge to locate one, but Conservancy members Gail and Harry Groot came to the rescue by offering us one of their extra toms. Once off their Virginia farm, he couldn’t come back, since he wasn’t needed for breeding. I agreed to take him to my farm in North Carolina, and they left it up to me whether he would become a resident of the farm or the Thanksgiving table.
The Groots have been raising Narragansetts for many years, and are taken with the turkey’s ability to forage for much of its own food during summer months. In the evenings, the turkeys roost in a large tree in front of the Groots’ house with one of the best views of the farm – the bird’s-eye view overlooking the small green valley filled with the Groots’ heritage sheep and vigilant guardian dogs. The Groots have found Narragansetts to be long-lived and hardy birds.
I traveled to the farm to pick one of the three turkeys I could choose from. I chose the one who seemed the most laid-back with people. I got him in hand and promptly decided to name him Roger after the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams. I don’t typically name animals that could potentially end up as dinner, but something told me Roger wasn’t destined for the table. He was a handsome tom, and he made the trip back to my farm without a problem. I had a month to tame him and get his health tested so he could make the trip to Mount Vernon following state regulations. My state poultry inspector was accommodating and was able to come do the testing, and, of course, like everyone else, she was taken with how beautiful the tom was. And she wouldn’t be his last fan.
A month went by, and thanks to plenty of bribery with goodies, Roger became relaxed around people and was ready for his public debut. The day came to head to Mount Vernon, so we packed him up in a large dog kennel bedded down with ample straw for his comfort. We traveled several hours to the event and were greeted by a welcoming staff that had set up a special stall in the barn where Roger could comfortably bed down for the night. He got some good rest and was ready for the event the following day.
Image The Livestock Conservancy
During the event, he seemed comfortable, and gobbled greetings to all who wandered past his stall. He created many new fans for the Narragansett breed among the hundreds of visitors that day. He also made fans among the facility’s animal staff. They were so impressed with his charm that they offered to make him the newest resident of Mount Vernon, and an ambassador for the breed. I thought the gesture would offer the public a wonderful chance to learn about this rare breed and appreciate its beauty. How could I refuse?
Of course, we couldn’t leave Roger without some friends to join him. The staff at Mount Vernon started building a new turkey exhibit shortly after he settled in. Roger quickly gained celebrity status in the barn, and everyone just loved having a turkey to add to the farm atmosphere. I sprang into action to locate some purebred hens for Mount Vernon that could be used to start a Narragansett breeding program. Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Ranch and Good Shepherd Conservancy graciously offered a small group of young hens and a spare tom to help get the breeding program off to a good start. His farm is in Kansas, so plans are in the works for the birds to make the trip to Mount Vernon. They’ll have ample time to settle in, and will no doubt be a highlight during the holiday season.
Like all heritage turkeys, the Narragansett is a rare bird, and it’s always in need of new breeders. Demand for holiday birds is good, but the number of Narragansett breeders has been diminishing over the past few years. Longtime breeders have retired, and few have taken their place. If you’re interested in becoming a new breeder, or you want to support existing breeders by purchasing their products, visit The Livestock Conservancy.
And plan for your holiday birds sooner rather than later, since supply runs out fast in many places!
A program manager for The Livestock Conservancy, Jeannette Beranger counts more than 30 years of experience working as an animal professional. She uses her knowledge to plan and implement breed conservation programs. In central North Carolina, she maintains a heritage breeds farm, with a focus on rare breed chickens.
An Introduction to Heritage Breeds
Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry
An Introduction to Heritage Breeds by Jeannette Beranger, Alison Martin, and D. Phillip Sponenberg is an eloquent and inviting visual guide that explains why conserving heritage breeds is important, and shows you how you can raise these breeds yourself, preserving them and benefiting from them at the same time. This title is available at www.Grit.com/Store or by calling 866-803-7096. Item #6995.