It was selectively bred for utility traits as a meat bird, and was an important variety in the turkey industry throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Like most turkey breeds, it declined after this point with the commercial adoption of the Broad Breasted White. Populations began to recover in the early 21st century, and today it is one of the most popular heritage turkey breeds in the U.S. Despite its relative popularity as a heritage breed, it is still listed as "watch" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, entailing that there are fewer than 5,000 breeding birds in the States. The Bourbon Red is also included in Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste, a catalog of heritage American foods in danger of extinction.
The Bourbon Red is a breed of domestic turkey named for its unique reddish plumage and for Bourbon County, Kentucky. The standard indicates mature Bourbon Red toms weigh 33 pounds (15 kilos), and mature hens weigh 18 pounds (8.2 kilos). The standard indicates the bourbon red should weigh 23 pounds for toms and 14 pounds for hens at maturity (butcher, 28 weeks). These standard weights were published at a time when the Bourbon Red was at its prime. Though there are efforts to restore the bourbon red to its prime, today these weights are not realized by many breeders and growers. Bourbon Reds have simply been unrefined for too long due to the lack of selective breeding in favor of preserving the breed. The breed's feathers are a dark base color, with white primaries in the tails characterized by a soft red band and white flight feathers both tail and wings feature chestnut coverts. The standard allows for a total of 30% red feathers in the tail before the bird is disqualified.
In the past, the breed has alternatively been called Kentucky Reds and Bourbon Butternuts. The bird originated in Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, and was created by crossing Buff, Standard Bronze, and White Holland turkeys. It was first recognized as turkey variety by the American Poultry Association in 1909.
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