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Domestic Varieties of Turkeys vs Wild Turkeys

This Turkey Tuesday is about domestic varieties of turkeys such as Heritage turkeys, versus wild turkeys. Each spring, pictures of turkeys with odd plumage pop us, as us turkey hunters encounter and harvest birds that appear quite unique. Wild turkeys have color morphs such as smoke gray and melanistic that are linked to genetic mutations, and these mutations can alter melanin production which results in feathers being lighter or darker than normal. And while I do see images each spring of these true wild turkeys, many images I see are of Heritage variety domestic turkeys such as this Fall Fire bird. Unlike turkeys produced for commercial purposes, Heritage varieties are mostly produced for their beauty and meat, can mate naturally with each other, and have comparable growth rates to wild turkeys. So, how are Heritage birds being harvested by us turkey hunters? To me, logic dictates they are being released or escaping – likely both. The Bourbon Red in the 2nd pic had been living feral with the local flock of wild turkeys for years before he came to our calls with 2 wild toms – the Fall Fire in the 1st pic also had become feral and was living with wild birds. I have recently seen pictures of Royal Palms (3rd image) and frequently see pictures of hunters having harvested Narragansetts (4th image), which are a popular variety of Heritage turkey. Can Heritage turkeys interbreed with wild turkeys? Yes, they’re the same species, so they can breed. But understand that Heritage varieties and their unique plumage results from inbreeding, closebreeding, and linebreeding – ways of identifying and ensuring the most desirable plumage traits for each variety. Interbreeding between Heritage and wild turkeys would not produce birds that look like those in these pictures. The take home is, if you look closely at the turkeys purported to be color phases of wild turkeys that appear on various platforms each spring, you will see that some of them are actually Heritage varieties.


Royal Palm Turkey male display


Tom (male) Narragansett heirloom variety of turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, displaying in barkyard coop.

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