The Gorgeous Regal Red Turkey

Tom T. Walker

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2002, 7(4):4-5

The Regal Red (Arkansas Red, Kentucky Red, or whatever it was called in your parts) turkey is/was almost extinct. In fact, most of us thought it gone. Fortunately, it had not completely disappeared. We can save it, improve it, and help it make a comeback. It is gorgeous! What does a Regal Red turkey look like? It is solid red with some markings. The outer red of the adult is approximately the same as the Bourbon Red; however, the body feathers of the Regal Red are white at body contact. The Regal Red has NO white in tail or wings. Regal Red hens have a narrow light band on the outer edge of the neck and body feathers. Also, the tail feathers have a darker band near the end and a light band at the end of each feather. The narrow band on the body feathers appears as a "feather edging." It is slightly lighter in color than the feather. On the tom, this same narrow band of "feather edging" starts on the neck and continues to approximately the wing buts. At that point, the narrow band becomes darker -- a dark reddish/blackish band. This continues over the rest of the body. On the wing feathers of both the tom and the hen, there is some peppering of black. Like that of the hen but even more pronounced, the tail feathers of the tom have a blackish/dark red band and then the light feather edging. The legs are reddish.

A "died in the wool" Bourbon Red fancier said to me, "The Regal Red is nothing more than a sorry grade of Bourbon Red. Many Bourbon Reds don't have much white in their tail or wings either." He was wrong. Although the outer red of the Regal Red and that of the Bourbon Red is similar, the color of the poults shows very clearly that the two are completely different breeds. Regal Red poults are pure white. During the many years that I raised Bourbon Reds, I never hatched a pure white poult. The Regal Red poult starts out pure white and, over a period of several months, its new feathers gradually transform its outer color into a gorgeous solid red bird with the few feather accents noted above. The white remains at skin level on the body feathers of adults.

Genetic infertility and/or fertility resulting from the large size of the toms (tom's weight twice that of the hen) seem to be two of the possible reasons for the near extinction of the breed. Slow maturity of the toms could possibly be another factor. Genetic infertility seems to be more prevalent among the toms; however, I have no data and only limited experience information on this. In 2000, I got my first stock from a breeder who had 2 toms (one old and one young) and 5 hens. The fertility of his flock was so poor that I had to wait until July to get four poults. (I wanted ten.) Fortunately, I raised all four and, also, fortunately, 2 were toms and 2 were hens.

In 2001, I had the two pairs (two pens). They were not a year of age until July 2001; however, the hens started laying in February. During the entire laying season, from one pair I got no fertile eggs and from the other pair I got 3 fertile eggs. I hatched all 3 of the fertile eggs and raised all 3 poults -- 3 hens. So, for 2002, I had two toms and five hens for my breeding program. In 2002, I had the same two Regal Red toms that I had in 2001. Each tom was mated with two of my five Regal Red hens. Both trios produced some fertile eggs; however, the vast majority of the eggs from both trios were infertile. (Also, even with saddles on the hens, the toms tore their back quite badly.) I hatched only 22 poults from the two trios. Most were strong and active; however, because of a cold wet spring, I left some of the early hatch for too long on a brick floor and a few of the toms developed knee problems when they got too heavy.

Early in 2001 I decided to do some genetic experimenting to see if I could improve the fertility. My thinking was to experiment with crossing the Regal Red with another solid color turkey to see if I could improve the fertility and to see how long it would take to move from the crosses to get pure white poults. The Black Spanish was selected. (At that time I had not become aware that the size of the tom might be playing some role in the fertility matter or, else, I might have selected some other breed.) A Black Spanish tom was mated to a Regal Red hen. In looks, the cross poults were fairly typical Black Spanish in color -- black with a white face. (I have never seen a pure Black Spanish poult, so my description is as described to me.) When grown, these crosses look very much like Bronze; however, there are some differences in color shades and markings. Too, some hens and some toms have an occasional red/reddish feather. Some inherited the red legs of the Regal Red while others did not. The crosses are, of course, 1/2 Black Spanish and 1/2 Regal Red.

In 2002, I mated a tom that was 1/2 Black Spanish-1/2 Regal Red to a hen that was pure Regal Red. Also, I mated a tom and a hen, both of which were 1/2 Black Spanish-1/2 Regal Red. From the two matings, there were several distinct colors of poults. Also, there were variations within some of the colors. In spite of the difference in the two crossbred matings, many of the poults from both matings were basically the same in color when hatched -- but not necessarily in the same proportions from the two matings. Had all the eggs been fertile, had all the eggs hatched, and had a tab been kept on the number of the various colors from each of the matings, I am convinced that the percentages of the various colors would have been different. A few poults were pure white, some were similar to Black Spanish, many were variations of Black Spanish, some were a dark-dark red and some were similar to Bronze but much lighter. Both the pure white poults and the poults marked like Bronze -- but much lighter -- will be discussed later. The Black Spanish and its variations matured in colors ranging from near Bronze to Black Spanish. The dark/dark red poults matured into very dark red birds with blackish bars on the feathers and with wings and tail that are a muddled mixture of red and white. In fact, these, appear much like the pictures that I have seen of a Jersey Buff.

A few poults from the mating where both tom and hen were 1/2 Black Spanish-1/2 Regal Red were solid white when hatched and developed into adults that are the "pure" Regal Red color. Although I raised one "pure in color" Regal Red tom from this combination, I have great hopes for him in my fertility improvement effort. In 2003, he will be mated to two of the four hens described in the next paragraph. From the mating where the tom was 1/2 Black Spanish-1/2 Regal Red and the hen was pure Regal Red, I hatched several pure white poults that matured into "pure in color" Regal Red adults. From this mating, I raised one tom and four hens. For my 2003 breeding program, this tom will be mated to two of these hens. The other two hens will be mated to the tom described in the previous paragraph.

The mating of the "pure in color" Regal Reds from the cross matings should show whether these Regal Reds produce pure white poults that mature into the pure in color adult Regal Reds. Also, these matings should give some information as to whether the cross breeding improved the fertility of the Regal Reds. Hopefully, I can report on these a year from now.

In 2003, I will repeat the 2002 matings of a Pure Regal Red to a 1/2 Black Spanish-1/2 Regal Red. One mating will be a Regal Red tom to a cross hen and the other mating will be the reverse. From these two matings I hope to get more white poults and more Harvest Gold poults. Another group of poults from both cross matings of 2002 were marked similar to Bronze poults except they were much lighter in color than Bronze. Those from the 1/2-1/2 tom mated with the 1/2-1/2 hen developed into beautiful birds that were darker than Palms but lighter than Bronze. The adults of these have no or very little rust, red, or gold. I did not have room to keep breeding stock from these. Some of the poults from the mating of the tom that was 1/2 Black Spanish-1/2 Regal Red with the pure Regal Red hen were marked similar to Bronze poults except that they were considerably lighter in color than Bronze and were slightly different in shade from the similar poults from the 1/2-1/2 to 1/2-1/2 mating discussed in the previous paragraph. The poults of this group developed into an adult that is a color-collage of gold, old gold, iridescent green, reddish, reddish brown, cream, black, etc. The male and the female are alike in color. They are, to me, "out of this world" in beauty. My wife believes they are exquisite and much more colorful that peacocks! I have two hens and several toms. In 2003, I hope to test whether this exquisitely colored bird will reproduce itself in color. If it does so the first year or, even, within a few years, I'll report about the breed later. For now, I will simply say that I am calling it a new breed and am calling it the Harvest Gold.

Regal Red hens are a nice size; however Regal Red toms are, in proportion to the hens, very large. For example, my two-year old hens weigh 16 pounds while my two-year old toms weigh 32 -- exactly twice the weight. I am convinced that the large size of the toms contributes to the infertility of the breed. In considering a plan to reduce the size of the toms, my first thought was that over a period of several years, the tom's size could be reduced through selection of the smaller toms for breeding. I realized, however, that this would take many years and would require the hatching and raising of large numbers of birds each year. With these things in view, I decided to attempt to make the size change by cross mating just as I am attempting to do to improve fertility. So, for 2003, my plans are to cross the Regal Red and the Midget White in an effort to reduce the size of the toms.

With this new experiment, just as it was two years ago when I crossed the Black Spanish and the Regal Red, the results are unforeseen. When someone proclaims to you that the Midget White cross will not work, please inquire whether he/she knows this because of having tried it. To date, I can only hope for a favorable outcome. To some of you who have an inquisitive mind and would like to join in this project, there is plenty of room. I'll be happy to help by sharing information and by helping you get breeding stock. Dr. Tom T. Walker, 278 Porter Road, Bastrop, TX 78602 Email:

Turkey Time

Tom Walker

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2003, 8(4):4-5

When considering all the exciting experiences that I have had with the Regal Red turkeys, it seems unbelievable that it was only three and a half years ago that I got my first Regal Red poults (July 2000). Upon seeing the beauty of the adults and learning of the near extinction of the Regal Reds, I decided to attempt to help restore this beauty to its rightful place in the turkey world. In carrying out this goal, I have experienced frustration and disappointment as well as pleasure and success. These experiences have combined to intensify and challenge the reclamation and improvement of this gorgeous bird.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Regal Reds were saved from complete extinction by being hidden away among Bourbon Red flocks. Since the poults of the Regals are snow white when hatched, one can only wonder what the breeders of Bourbon Reds must have thought about the poults that were so different from the Bourbon Red poults! How fortunate that the Bourbon breeders did not destroy all the white poults.

One of the reasons why I am convinced that the Regals were hidden away among Bourbons is that white spots on wing and tail feathers and/or a white wing or tail feather appears quite often in the pure Regal Reds. Since the Regal Red poults are snow white when hatched and since the white remains at skin level on the adult, the red of the feathers is very slow in development. As the poult matures, the red gradually takes the place of white and becomes a camouflage that completely covers the white next to the skin. The wing feathers and tail feathers of the Regal Red are solid red with black peppering. Near the end of the tail feathers, a band of darker red and then a band of much lighter red appears.

Those of us who are attempting to re-establish the Regal Red must be very selective with regard to breeding stock. We must select breeders that have absolutely no white in wings and tails if we are to accomplish our goal. Since the red comes very gradually, the birds must be quite mature before determining whether any white will remain in wings and tails.

In early 2000 I anxiously awaited the arrival of ten poults that I had reserved. Week after week the breeder notified me that the eggs did not hatch. I thought it strange that with his two toms and five hens all the eggs during that spring were infertile. It was not until July that enough eggs hatched for me to purchase four poults rather than the ten anticipated. Fortunately the four were two toms and two hens. These were mated in two separate pens for the 2001 breeding season.

When my two Regal Red hens began to lay in early 2001, I found that their eggs were not fertile. It was at this point that I made the decision to attempt improving fertility by crossing the Regal Reds with Black Spanish (another solid color turkey). It was my thinking at the time that perhaps the infertility of the Regals was a result of much inbreeding and that crossing the Regals with the Blacks, I could within two or more years come back to pure color reds that were more fertile than the original Regal Reds. Being able to come back to pure color reds within two years has been proven in my breeding program. Also, without doing a technical statistical study, it appears that the Red toms that result are fertile earlier than the original pure Regal Red toms.

In my original observations about fertility, I missed one factor that I have since come to believe is a key to the infertility of the Regal Reds. That factor is the size of the toms. Regal Red hens of approximately a year to two years of age weigh about sixteen to seventeen pounds. The males of that same age are twice that size. A poultry specialist advised artificial insemination. That I ruled out as I am not trying to produce a commercial turkey. My attempt is to restore a heritage turkey that breeds naturally. I am convinced that if this goal is accomplished, the size of the Regal Red tom must be reduced. In 2003, I crossed the Regal Reds with two midget breeds, hoping that one or both of these crosses will produce a tom that is smaller and will mature at a much younger age. If space allowed, I could report in much detail on my hybrid work with the Regal Red and the Black Spanish. That I may do at a later date; however, if either of the Regal Red/midget crosses accomplishes my purpose, I may decide to emphasize the midget cross rather than the Black Spanish cross. Time will help make that decision.

As I thought about a program that could possibly produce a smaller Regal Red tom, I decided to cross the Regal Red with the Midget White that was produced first by the University of Massachusetts and later by the University of Wisconsin. The Midget toms are approximately half the size of the Regal Red toms and mature much younger. In 2002, I was fortunate to get some Midget White eggs from a flock that was direct from the University of Wisconsin. From these eggs, I raised one tom and three hens. In 2003, I mated the Midget White and the Regal Red together. At this point in time, the poults more than meet my expectations. That, of course, does not mean that their progeny in 2004 will be what I anticipate. A year from now I can report on this experiment.

In early 2003, I was discussing with another turkey fancier in my area my Regal Red/Black Spanish hybrids. One of the points of discussion was my thought that the size of the Regal Red tom was part of the fertility problem and that the Black Spanish had not helped in respect to size. My fellow turkey fancier stated, "I have a midget black hen that might help." Supposedly she was hatched from an egg brought into the United States from Mexico. He noted that she was several years old but she produced fertile eggs the previous year. To make a long story short, this very small black hen joined my breeding program in 2003. She is a beauty -- coal black with red legs (red like the legs of Regal Reds). She is like nothing that I have seen before. Her weight is about nine pounds when corn fed, basically the same weight as my White Midget hens. I was not sure that she could successfully mate with a 35 pound Regal Red tom. Further, I was not sure that the young tom with which I mated her was fertile. However, the mating proved to be at least partly successful. I hatched several poults from the mating and at this point, even after visits from raccoons, opossums, stray dogs, and neighborhood cats, I have four young from the mating. All, however, are toms. These toms have matured very rapidly and, at this point, it appears that they will not be any larger than my Midget White tom, if that large. My plan for 2004 is to mate these young toms to Regal Red hens. I am excited about the potential contribution of this cross to the reclaiming of the Regal Reds. Time will tell whether this cross is the answer.

In a previous article I mentioned a new color pattern that good fortune brought me from the Regal Red/Black Spanish cross. Because of the prominence of old gold in the brilliant plumage of these turkeys, I named them the Harvest Gold. The 2003 mating of Harvest Gold toms to Harvest Gold hens was my first opportunity to see how true this first year hybrid mating would be. This was one of the surprises and one of the excitements of the year.

I had two pens of the Harvest Gold with one tom and one hen in each pen. The poults from each pair were marked at hatch to permit cross mating from the two pens in 2004. Even after visits from all the previously mentioned predators, I raised to maturity a total of 28 Harvest Gold poults. Of this 28, ten were white when hatched and matured into pure color Regal Reds (second generation from a non-hybrid Regal Red hen x a 1/2 Regal Red-1/2 Black Spanish tom). Thirteen of the 28 were marked exactly like the Harvest Gold parents when they were hatched and developed into adults of exactly the same color patterns as the parent stock. The other five were, when hatched, marked like the Harvest Gold poults but were a shade darker. These darker poults developed into adults that are marked much like the Harvest gold but are darker in color.

My plan for 2004 is to mate at least two (perhaps three) pens of the Harvest Gold that are marked exactly like the parents and see to what extent they breed pure in color. It will be of interest to see how many generations it requires for the Harvest Gold to reproduce 100 percent pure. Hopefully, in 2004, I will have additional information to report. The extent that color and color combinations are hidden away in the Wild turkey or the early Bronze variety is unbelievable. How exciting to see these colors reveal themselves in various matings!

[Regal Red Turkeys]




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