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Are bourbon red turkeys rare?

The Bourbon Red turkey is a rare heritage breed of domestic turkey with a rich history in the United States. While once critically endangered, conservation efforts have helped bring Bourbon Reds back from the brink of extinction. Today, these striking birds with their rich chestnut plumage are prized by small farmers and backyard turkey keepers. But just how rare are Bourbon Red turkeys? Let’s take a closer look at this historic American breed.

Origin and History of the Bourbon Red Turkey

The Bourbon Red turkey breed gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky where it was first developed. These birds descended from turkeys originally brought to the Americas from Europe in the 16th century. By the late 1800s, the bourbon whiskey industry was booming in Kentucky. Local farmers began selectively breeding their turkeys to produce a new variety with deep reddish-brown plumage the color of fine bourbon whiskey.

The new Bourbon Red turkeys were an immediate hit. Their rich chestnut feathers were strikingly beautiful and hid dirt well. Their calm temperament also made them an excellent multipurpose breed for both meat and egg production. Bourbon Reds soon spread across the South and Midwest as an ideal turkey for small farms and homesteads.

The Decline of the Bourbon Red

By the middle of the 20th century, industrial turkey production began to take hold in the US. Broad-breasted white turkeys that matured quickly were favored by large commercial growers. Interest in old heritage turkey breeds like the Bourbon Red rapidly declined.

Without concerted conservation efforts, the Bourbon Red was in real danger of going extinct. By 2000, it was estimated that less than 1,000 breeding Bourbon Reds remained nationwide. The Livestock Conservancy classified them as “critical” status just one step away from extinction.

Bourbon Red Conservation

Thankfully before it was too late, steps were taken to save this historic American breed. In the early 2000s, conservation organizations like the Livestock Conservancy began working to protect Bourbon Reds by locating rare breeding stock and promoting them to sustainable farmers.

Specialty hatchery organizations like the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities also kept pedigree breeding flocks of heritage turkeys like the Bourbon Red to preserve genetic diversity. As consumer interest grew in pasture-raised heritage turkeys, the market for Bourbon Reds expanded.

Bourbon Red Numbers Today

After years of dedicated conservation work, Bourbon Red numbers have rebounded substantially. From an estimated global population of less than 1,000 in 2000, their numbers have increased to around 10,000 breeding birds today.

While still considered “watch” status and rare compared to commercial breeds, Bourbon Reds are no longer facing imminent extinction. With current breeding stock, the Livestock Conservancy estimates the Bourbon Red global population could grow to over 15,000 in the next decade if conservation efforts continue.

Geographic Distribution

The majority of surviving Bourbon Red breeding stock is still concentrated in the American South and Midwest where the breed originated. However, breeding efforts have helped reintroduce Bourbon Reds to other areas of the US.

State Estimated Population
Kentucky 3,000
Arkansas 2,000
Oklahoma 1,500
Missouri 1,000
Other Southern and Midwestern States 1,500
West and Northeast US 1,000

Rare breed enthusiasts on both coasts and in New England have imported breeding stock over the past decade to reintroduce and conserve Bourbon Reds in these regions.

Characteristics of Bourbon Red Turkeys

So what makes Bourbon Red turkeys special beyond their striking coloration? Here are some of the key characteristics of this heritage breed:

  • Size – Standard mature weights are 16-22 lbs for hens and 25-30 lbs for toms. Significantly smaller than commercial broad-breasted turkeys.
  • Color – Rich mahogany red plumage with black and white accents on tail and flight feathers. Legs are reddish gray.
  • Conformation – Compact, well-rounded body on relatively short legs compared to commercial turkeys.
  • Temperament – Curious, docile disposition well-suited for small farm life. Excellent foragers.
  • Egg Production – Hens lay 100-120 eggs per year. Fertility and hatchability are excellent.
  • Meat Quality – Leaner with more dark meat compared to commercial varieties. Rich flavor.


The versatility and hardiness of Bourbon Reds make them an excellent multi-purpose heritage turkey breed. Typical uses include:

  • Meat production – Slow growth produces flavorful meat. Ideal market size is 18-22 lbs for hens; 24-28 lbs for toms at 28 weeks.
  • Eggs – Medium sized brown eggs with good fertility. Hens lay well through winter.
  • Ornamental – Striking plumage popular for small farms, backyard flocks, or pet turkeys.
  • Conservation – Breeding stock preserved through conservation organizations, hobby breeders, and sustainable farms.
  • Exhibition – Popular for poultry shows and exhibitions of rare breed livestock.

Flavor and Meat Quality

The rich, old-fashioned flavor of Bourbon Red meat sets it apart from mass market turkeys. The moderate growth rate, exercise, and diverse pasture forage produces a leaner bird with more dark meat compared to commercial varieties.

Many turkey connoisseurs describe the meat as more succulent with a more robust, savory flavor. The taste reflects the pastured, heirloom origins of the breed. Bourbon Reds are a favorite choice for holiday meals and other special occasions demanding premium quality turkey.

Raising Bourbon Reds

What’s involved in actually raising Bourbon Red turkeys yourself? Here are some tips on successfully raising this heritage breed:

  • Chicks need extra warmth such as heat lamps during the brooder stage. Mature slowly requiring 28 weeks to reach full market weights.
  • Provide free-choice feed mixed specifically for turkey poults during the fast growing brooder stage.
  • Allow access to pasture or ranging area after 12-14 weeks old. Natural forage supplies key nutrients.
  • After full feathers develop, Bourbon Reds are quite hardy down into freezing temperatures. Still require shelter.
  • Range shelters, roosts, and fencing must be turkey proof. They roost in trees and fly better than chickens.
  • Supplemental feeding with turkey grower ration helps ensure proper growth and meat quality.

With attentive care and good management, heritage turkey breeds like the Bourbon Red thrive on diversified small farms and homesteads. Their active foraging helps control weeds and insects while the birds themselves help cycle nutrients across the landscape.

Availability and Breeding Stock

So where and how can you actually buy Bourbon Reds? Here are some tips on sourcing breeding stock:

  • Check with regional hatcheries that specialize in rare and heritage poultry breeds.
  • Contact local chapters of conservation organizations. Members often sell limited private stock.
  • Search for local breeders through marketing sites or contacts provided by conservation associations.
  • Be prepared to pay higher prices for heritage poults and breeding stock than commercial turkeys.
  • Verify lineage and pedigree when possible to avoid crossover breeding with wild turkeys or other breeds.

Joining online communities of rare breed enthusiasts can also help you network and locate quality Bourbon Red breeding stock in your region.

Outlook for the Bourbon Red

The future looks bright for the Bourbon Red turkey breed thanks to the work of conscientious breeders and conservationists over the past two decades. Sustainable family farms are the ideal environment for this hardy and beautiful heritage turkey breed to thrive in the years ahead.

While still comparatively rare, interest and demand for Bourbon Reds continues to grow. This striking old breed has rebounded from the edge of extinction to become a shining example of the importance of conserving America’s poultry heritage.


In summary, while Bourbon Red turkeys are still considered a rare breed, they have made an incredible comeback from the brink of extinction since the year 2000. From a low point of less than 1,000 birds, active breeding efforts have increased the global population tenfold. The rich, deep chestnut plumage and hardy productive qualities have made them prized by small farmers and backyard turkey keepers.

Ongoing conservation work aims to expand breeding stock across the country and ensure the preservation of these beautiful heritage American turkeys into the future. With their excellent foraging abilities and friendly temperament, Bourbon Reds are perfectly suited to regenerative small farms. As demand grows for non-commercial turkey varieties, the Bourbon Red heritage breed is poised for a sustainable revival.