Bourbon Red turkeys originated in Bourbon County, KY, probably a cross between the wild turkeys found in mountainous areas and white domestic turkeys. The American Standard of Perfection accepts Bourbon Co., KY as their home and indicated they descended from the wild yellow turkey. They found their way into the Ohio and then to other areas, and were admitted to the American Standard in 1910.

There are naturally a few contradictory accounts regarding the origins of this majestic bird. One school of thought says they were bred in Pennsylvania where it descended from the Tuscarora red and Buffs. That source says from Pennsylvania they were taken to Kentucky where the color was enhanced. With either story, the bird as we know it seems to have come from Kentucky.

Breeders claimed the bourbon reds were more disease-resistant than other breeds, some of which were susceptible to blackhead.

Reds have pin feathers that, “did not show as plainly as darker colored birds, being nearly the color of the skin”, and poults are larger when hatched and also more disease resistant. One breeder said the hens layed larger clutches of eggs, up to as many as 30, 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. they required no feeding at all. They do certainly enjoy a juicy grasshopper or cricket.

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 rather striking appearance.

The reds don’t mature as fast as the assembly-line white broad-breasted, so the breed probably wouldn’t be a good first choice if the goal is to get them to weight as fast as possible for market.

Those who appreciate the beauty and the personal characteristics of heritage breeds 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 and to protect them from preditors. Their pen can easily be moved to allow them access to tender fresh clean grass.

Toms top out at about 23 lbs., hens at around 12, down somewhat from 100 years ago when the toms often reached 30 lbs. 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 breed going.

My turkeys like scratch feed, bugs, and greens or grass. They aren’t as fond of cracked corn as the scratch though I sometimes mix extra corn into the scratch. I’ve planted a patch of greens primarily for them, but I do hope to gather a few for myself as well. I add 1 to 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to each gallon of water for them to promote good health through probiotics.

My tom is heavier than his ladies and doesn’t fly as well, but he can get himself hoisted onto the roosting pole in the enclosure at night. My plan is to replace him with a younger, perhaps more virile, fellow within the next year or two and retire the present laird after which he will have free run of the place to do as he will.

Sources: “The Country Life”. Vol. 23. Nov. 1912.
McGrew, Thomas Fletcher. “The Book of Poultry”. 1921.
“The American Standard of Perfection”. 1910.