Royal Turkey

The end of the growing season on the farm means a time for consolidating livestock for overwintering. Feeds like grain or hay must be stored and appropriately doled out through the winter as outdoor forages are frozen and buried beneath the snow. Summer quarters are too drafty or unprotective against the inclement weather of the season, but overwintering quarters are limited in comparison. This means that autumn is a time for selecting who will be next year’s breeding stock and who will become dinner.

This model of downsizing for winter holds true for the world of turkeys as well. Each year, I pick out a few more Jennys to augment the breeding flock from the year’s young-ins and assess whether it’s time to swap out some Toms. After a while, the Jennys slow down with their egg laying and grow elderly (time to retire for the soup pot) and older Toms grow nasty spurs that can be rather dangerous.

This year, I selected four ladies to keep as up-and-coming turkey moms, which were all plumed in different colors. While the basis of my flock has been the heritage breed Jersey Buff (cinnamon colored birds with some lighter or darker flecking), I’ve also played around with introducing other genetics for hybrid vigor and broader frames. With only a handful of birds to start, I didn’t want the genetics to peter out into bad legs or blind poults. By keeping a few other breeds here and there, it’s been an experiment to see what happens as the chicks emerge from their eggs and grow to full fledge.

First, I had kept a couple of Great Whites, which I buy as poults and raise for folks who want the big-breasted Norman Rockwell turkey presentation. The breed has been selected for fast growth and front-heavy muscling, as well as white feathers for a pretty finish to their skin. But the Great White comes with its own slew of problems, including poorer pasturing compared to heritage breeds, leg problems, and heart failure (just like commercial breeds of meat chickens).

My theory was that if I kept a couple of Jennys for breeding with my Jersey Buff Toms, maybe I’d get a mix that would pasture well, was heartier than the whites, and had a bigger frame with more muscling. It was a theory that was partly thwarted by the death of one of the white hens just prior to breeding, likely from liver failure that plagues the breed. But the one tottering hen remained, straining to get around under her egregious weight.

That spring, one of the poults came out with an interesting color pattern. While Jersey Buff hatchlings normally are sandy-colored with blond faces, throats, and tummies, one was cream and brownie-batter smudged and spotted all over. Named “Special” for its color, the baby turkey was twice as big as is compatriots and very vigorous. As it matured, the poult became a young Jenny with dark feathers tinted slate gray in the middle and wings barred white and deep chocolate. Her swagger and attitude soon changed the name from “Special” to “Miss Sassy,” and she didn’t take any flack from anybody else in the coop.

Researching online, I learned about a strain of heritage birds called the Narragansett, which has identical feather markings. How interesting! So I kept Miss Sassy, along with two Broad-Breasted Bronze females purchased that summer, and the experiment continued with Buff, Bronze, and the newly-made Narragansett.

By now, the original Great White had been retired in pity of her obese condition, and in the spring eggs were again collected for hatching. Two little ones came out extra-large as well and the lightest of silver fluff, while two others were normal size but black as obsidian (even their legs) with yellow chins and rings around the eyes. Even though the Great White Jenny wasn’t in the mix, there was another mottled brown and cream one too. What a wild combo pack amidst the sandy blonds of the Buffs!

It turns out that the Jersey Buff Toms that fathered of all these colors are their own fairly recent blend of breeds. Trying to remake an all-red heritage variety from the 1800’s that had been lost, breeders in New Jersey worked with Red Bourbon, Standard Bronze, and Spanish Black to create the Jersey Buff. It’s close to the original, with hints of the distinct Bourbon white wings on a red body. But all these underlayers of rare breeds are beginning to emerge in my cross-breeding exercise.

Those coal-black poults turned into mottled dark cocoa-colored hens with black legs and a wide gate, the mottled-brown poult turned into a look-alike of the other Narragansett, while the silver-colored fuzzballs became complete opposites. One turned into a hen of the smoothest leather color with a white bib on her neck, and the other became a Tom sporting a white base, distinct black coloration, and a touch of sandy accents.

This particular look has its own recognized heritage breed, the Royal Palm, which is especially rare—on par with the Blue Slate and Lilac breeds. Distinctive features of the Royal Palm are the white shoulders and tail, dark feathers on the back, dark accents on the belly and wings, and a strong black bar across the tail. The breed was originally formed during the 1920’s in Florida, by crossing the Spanish Black, the Standard Bronze, and the Narragansett, which are all bits and pieces I’d been collecting in an organic way.

While our farm-tour-famous Jersey Buff Toms “Chocolate” and “Vanilla” were staying on another year as fathers of the flock, I couldn’t send the little Royal Palm fellow to the Thanksgiving table. While adding four new Jenny’s to the flock ruffled some feathers, especially Miss Sassy, adding a new Tom to the mix could have been an all-out turkey war. But true to the characteristic of the Royal Palm breed, the new fellow is docile and keeps out of the way of the bossy birds in the barnyard.

“And what shall we call you little mister?” I asked the turkeys one day while doing chores. “We’ve got Chocolate and Vanilla, so would that make you Fudge Ripple?”

The beady turkey eye looked at me and blinked, his red snood dangling over his beak. It wasn’t suiting his fancy.

“Ok, you’re a royal turkey and you know it. How about Prince Charming?”

He puffed up his back feathers and pranced about (as much as he dared without catching Miss Sassy or Chocolate’s attention). This was obviously the better choice, as far as he was concerned.

So Prince Charming is one of the lucky turkeys this Thanksgiving, and I’ll remind him of that on Thursday, when all his cousins who didn’t make the genetic pick will be adorning folks’ tables across the Northwoods. But he is quite the royal turkey, and I’ll be waiting in anticipation to see what mix-bag of poults will appear from speckled turkey eggs in the spring. I’m sure he’ll be a proud papa for next year’s farm tours, strutting his tuxedo colors for all the world to see.

A happy Thanksgiving to you and your family! See you down on the farm sometime.

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