The Bourbon Red turkey is one breed that commonly comes up when people talk about heritage turkey breeds in the United States. But while this breed is pretty well-known, it is relatively rarer than it was during its peak in the 1930s and 1940s.
Meat from Bourbon Reds is one of the most delicious among turkey breeds. But besides having delicious meat, Bourbon Red turkeys are beautiful, and they are also docile. So, if you want to raise them yourself, there wouldn’t be much to worry about.
If you’ve heard of the desirable qualities of Bourbon Red turkeys and would like to know more about them, you are where you should be. Below, we compiled a Bourbon Red turkey breed profile just for you.
History and Origin
The Bourbon Red is an American turkey breed from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Hence, the name. In the late 1800s, a Bourbon County farmer named J.F. Barbee crossed Bronze, Buff, and White Holland turkeys. This farmer’s efforts created the Bourbon Red turkey breed.
The first few steps of the Bourbon Red turkey creation actually happened in Pennsylvania. Back then, the Buff turkeys of Pennsylvania had darker red tones.
Settlers headed towards Kentucky or Ohio often traveled with their Buff turkeys (known then as Tuscarora or Tuscawara). And they were the foundation breed for Bourbon Red turkeys.
Following a few years of selection, J.F. Barbee achieved his goal. He finally produced properly sized turkeys with dark red plumage, primary tail feathers, and white wings.
J.F. Barbee initially named the breed “Bourbon Butternuts.” But seeing that that name did not promote the breed as much as he desired, he rechristened them “Bourbon Reds.” Of course, the “Bourbon” for his county and the “Reds” for the plumage of the birds. The new name stuck as there seemed to be an improvement in interest and sales.
While Bourbon Reds got recognition from the American Poultry Association in 1909, they hit their peak period during the 1930s and 1940s.
Their standout features included their utility traits, richly flavored meat, and heavy breasts. Some early breeders also said that Bourbon Reds could sometimes grow as big as a Mammoth Bronze turkey.
The emergence of broad-breasted hybrid turkey varieties triggered the dip in popularity of the Bourbon Reds. So, after the 1940s, Bourbon Reds were gradually relegated to the backseat until around 2002.
Since 2002, breeders have had renewed interests in Bourbon Red turkeys thanks to their hardiness, tasty meat, and brooding potential. Thanks to the renewed interest in the breed, Bourbon Reds are one of the most well-known heritage turkey breeds in the United States.
Bourbon Red turkeys are one of the largest-sized turkeys you will come across. On average, adult toms weigh around 33 pounds. Adult hens weigh about 18 pounds.
Young Bourbon Red toms weigh around 23 pounds, with young hens around 14 pounds.
Bourbon Red turkeys are red like their name implies. Their plumage is primarily rusty or brownish-red. However, their tail feathers are white with soft red bars towards the end. The flight feathers of Bourbon Red turkeys are also white.
While their plumage is predominantly reddish, Bourbon Red toms may have a black coloration at the edgings of their body feathers.
The breast feathers and neck feathers of Bourbon Reds have a chestnut mahogany hue. But their underbelly feathers are light buff or whitish.
Bourbon Reds ordinarily have red wattles. However, they may turn bluish-white. Bourbon Red turkeys have black beards and pink toes and shanks. Their beaks are dark at the base and a light horn color at the tip.
Bourbon Red toms have a remarkable tail span; their tail feathers spread out into beautiful shades of reddish-brown. However, Bourbon Red hens are less flashy and less colorful.
While Bourbon Reds are primarily a meat breed, they excel at egg-laying. In fact, if you want a turkey breed that will give a decent return on eggs, you should consider Bourbon Reds.
Bourbon Red hens hit sexual maturity when they are 7 to 8 months old. However, they typically do not lay eggs until the spring after they hatch (a year later). But then, in some cases, a Bourbon Red hen might lay a few eggs in the fall after hatching and then pause when winter comes.
On average, Bourbon Red hens lay around 90 to 120 eggs. However, domesticated Bourbon Red hens can lay 160 to 180 eggs.
At one point, Bourbon Reds were the favorite turkey breed for Thanksgiving. Their popularity, which was due to their unique flavor, is not surprising. After all, the primary purpose of breeding Bourbon Reds was initially for meat.
Bourbon Reds can give up to 14 to 23 pounds of meat when slaughtered. Of course, this yield could be higher, depending on the sex and age of the turkey.
Plucking feathers off the skin of Bourbon Reds can be a bit challenging. But when dressed, the Bourbon Red carcass is pretty clean, thanks to their light pinfeathers, which leave no dark pigmentation.
Being as beautiful as they are, Bourbon Reds also serve ornamental purposes. You could use them as exhibition birds or backyard birds.
Behavior and Temperament
Bourbon Red turkeys are generally docile, friendly, and sweet. They have affectionate and outgoing personalities, so they relate well to humans. However, some Bourbon Red toms may get aggressive or territorial once in a while. But then, such aggression is usually expressed towards rival males.
While Bourbon Reds are generally gentle, raising them might be challenging, especially if you are a beginner. Bourbon Red turkeys have some wild instincts. These instincts, in turn, make them do some exhausting things.
For one, Bourbon Red hens nest in awkward spaces. Even if you prepare proper nests to lay their eggs, they might choose somewhere else to nest. But then, even if they do this, respect their decision and protect the nesting area they choose.
Bourbon Red hens are devoted mothers. They spend almost the entire incubation period sitting on the eggs when incubating. They only get off the eggs when they need to eat and drink.
The inclination of Bourbon Red hens to nest anywhere they choose, alongside their devoted broodiness, leads to some disorganization. This is why they can be challenging to raise. But aside from this, Bourbon Red hens are great mothers.
Pros and Cons
- Bourbon Red turkeys are large-sized, making them great for meat.
- Their meat has a superior flavor.
- Their egg production rate is stellar.
- Bourbon Reds have clean carcasses, thanks to their light-colored pinfeathers.
- Bourbon Red turkeys breed naturally; they need no artificial insemination.
- Bourbon Red turkeys have high survivability and biological fitness. They are not particularly susceptible to any diseases.
- Besides meat and egg production, they are suitable for ornamental purposes.
- They are good foragers, and they might thrive in pasture production systems.
- Bourbon Red turkeys are not susceptible to aerial predators like hawks. This makes their foraging ability even better.
- Bourbon Red hens are broody. So, you may not need an incubator to hatch the eggs.
- Most times, Bourbon Red hens build their nests wherever they want.
- It can be a bit challenging to pluck their feathers.
Hatching and Raising
If the Bourbon Red mother hen is available, you may not have to do much to hatch the eggs. The mother hens are typically broody; the hens spend most of their time sitting on the eggs until they hatch.
But in the absence of a Bourbon Red mother hen, you could hatch Bourbon Red eggs using an incubator, just like the eggs of any other turkey breed.
Give your Bourbon Red poults a 30% protein starter in the first eight weeks of their lives. Then after eight weeks, move them to a high-calorie flock raiser with 20% protein.
If you are raising the Bourbon Red hens for eggs, you’d have to switch to game-bird layer feed when laying season comes. The toms can remain on the flock raiser while the hens remain on layer feed.
Since they are large-sized turkeys, Bourbon Reds need far more space than chickens. So, you’d have to give them 8 square feet to 10 square feet of coop space per adult bird.
If you intend to install roosts in the coop, ensure they are not more than 18 inches off the ground. If they are too high, the Bourbon Reds might end up with feet and leg issues from jumping off high spots.
You could also let your Bourbon Reds roam freely. Since they are great foragers that are not susceptible to aerial predators, they will thrive when they range freely.
Like any other turkey breed, Bourbon Reds are prone to blackhead (a disease caused by parasites). So, ensure you know the signs and prevention tips for blackhead.
For one, you must not keep your Bourbon Red turkeys with chickens. Chickens typically show no signs when they have a blackhead infection. However, they can spread the disease even without showing symptoms.
So, if you keep chickens and Bourbon Reds together, you may never know when the chickens will infect the turkeys. Unfortunately, turkeys get sick from the disease, while chickens rarely do.
Besides blackhead, Bourbon Reds are not particularly prone to any diseases. Still, monitor them for internal and external parasites. A dust bathing area could help the turkeys get rid of any external parasites.
Besides being called Bourbon Butternuts and Bourbon Reds, people also called this breed the Kentucky Red.
Where to Buy and Costs
You might find Bourbon Red turkeys for sale through the links below:
- Krebs Farm
- Hatching Eggs: $7 per egg
- Unsexed Poults: $18 per poult
- Toms and Jakes: $100 per turkey
- Hens and Jennies: $75 per turkey
- Murray McMurray Hatchery
- Unsexed Poults: $13.84 per poult for 1-5 units and $13.15 per poult for six or more units
- Poults: $12.65 per poult