New Zealand: Rare
Introduced: Early 19thC


A Rare Breed from North America

TurkeysTurkeys (rooster in the background). Photo by Marina Steinke.


The turkey is a native of North and Central America, and was first domesticated by at least 500 BC – possibly much earlier. It was taken to Europe in the early 1500s, shortly after the Spanish arrived in Mexico, and soon spread to the Mediterranean basin, where it probably acquired its present name from Turkish merchants.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, turkeys were relatively common in Britain, and were being raised there in large numbers by the seventeenth century.

Colonists from Britain to America in the early 1600s took domesticated turkeys with them, not expecting to find wild turkeys in their new home. The re-introduced turkeys were crossed with the native varieties and some were subsequently taken back to Britain.

TurkeysFeral turkeys in the North Island.

Turkeys were introduced into New Zealand at least as early as 1851 (there is an unsubstantiated account of Maori traders giving a turkey to a whaleship in 1819), and there appear to have been many subsequent importations. Turkeys have gone wild in various districts from time to time, usually being found not far from the farmyards from which they have strayed. Wild turkeys were reported inland from Hawkes Bay as early as the 1880s. Turkeys have naturalized in some parts of New Zealand and are frequently seen roaming various habitats in Northland. Some tourist and adventure organizations list hunting turkeys as one of the attractions they provide for visitors.

Several domestic breeds are recognized – colours ranging from black, through blue, bronze and buff, to white. Most of the specialized breeds are now rare in New Zealand having been replaced by commercially developed food varieties.

Rearing Turkeys – Marina Steinke

Bronze turkey owned by Phipps
Bronze turkey at Dove Cottage
White turkey
White turkey

Most people think of Christmas Dinner or Thanksgiving Dinner when they hear the word ‘turkey’. Instead of buying a frozen turkey from the supermarket freezer, growing your own is a viable option. The only logistical problem is timing: young turkeys are ready to kill in autumn which coincides with Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, spring hatched turkeys who are raised free ranging are ready in March or April which means they have a long stint in the freezer ahead of them which may not be economical for most people.

However, turkey tastes good all year round and, considering their size, turkey breast steaks are a low fat delicacy.

Most turkeys we can buy for eating are the white variety that has been bred to grow fast – just like broiler chickens. These turkeys are not suitable to breed in a backyard situation as the males are too heavy to be able to mate naturally. Artificial insemination is a specialty not usually done by someone who just wants a few turkeys for the freezer.

Buff turkey owned by Phipps
Buff turkey at Dove Cottage
Royal Palm turkey
Royal Palm turkey at Dove Cottage

This means the heritage turkey breeds like the Bronze, Buff and Royal Palm are much better suited to a free range life where they breed naturally. Turkey poults (baby turkeys) are delicate and, if left to free range with the hen, will soon get lost. Most people either lock up the turkey hen with her poults for the first three or four weeks or take away the poults and hand raise them until they are old enough to join the free ranging flock.

Turkeys are not usually kept to provide eggs but turkey hens will continue to lay for several weeks if eggs are taken away. If the eggs are left in the hen's nest, she will eventually go broody and hatch them.

Turkey eggs can be incubated under the same conditions as chicken eggs but they take 28 days before they hatch. Hand raising turkey poults is no big effort, either. During their first three to four weeks they don‘t outgrow brooders suitable for chicken chicks. They need game bird crumbs or meat bird crumbs as ordinary chick starter crumbs don‘t provide enough protein for turkey poults.

As to keeping chickens and turkeys together: in a genuine free range situation there generally are no problems with keeping turkeys and chickens together. In a small pen there isn‘t enough room for turkeys in any case. They are big birds and need space to roam. Turkeys are good foragers and can find a large proportion of their food requirements if allowed to free range.

Thanks to Marina Steinke for supplying uppermost photograph and the text on Rearing Turkeys.

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