Ted Manzer: Despite name, odd-looking turkens are all chicken

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Turkens are a curious chicken breed with potential for the south

I’ve been asked numerous times if chickens and turkeys can interbreed. We have roosters at school who regularly try, but these two fowl are genetically too far apart to produce offspring outside of the laboratory. Even in that artificial environment, research has been unsuccessful.

Chickens and turkeys have many similar traits, including light colored breast and wing meat, but they’re not even in the same family. They are both in the order Galliformes and commonly called gallinaceous (chicken-like) birds.

Bird species from this group generally have short wings, heavy bodies and small heads. They usually walk and fly only when necessary. Strangely, chickens are related closer to pheasants and quail than turkeys. Other relatives are grouse, partridges and guinea fowl. Arctic dwelling ptarmigan also belong to this group.

There is a chicken breed that strongly resembles a turkey. It’s called a turken, bare-neck or Transylvanian naked neck. This breed has no or very few neck feathers. Naked necks also have fewer feathers in general, but that’s not noticeable until you pluck one side by side with a conventional breed.

An inhibitor protein called BMP12 is responsible for the lack of feathers. The bare neck as well as lower general feather density helps these birds withstand hotter summer temperatures. Their necks get quite red but they don’t get lethargic, molt or quit laying during extreme periods of heat. Surprisingly, they also tolerate our winters well.

Naked necks are fair layers, producing medium-sized light brown eggs. They are good dual purpose birds too. They don’t grow as fast as some breeds, but their growth rate and efficiency is good. Bare necks are easily tamed and adapt to contained and free-range situations well.

The breed is also considered broody. This means that hens will often set and incubate new chicks. Most domestic chickens are lousy setters and if you want baby chicks you have to put the eggs in an incubator. Sometimes you can trick a good setting hen into hatching additional eggs.

Turkens have become popular in parts of Europe, because they take less time to dress by hand. This isn’t a concern commercially as all cleaning is mechanized, but for the backyard chicken farmer it might be a positive. These fowl are also considered effective foragers.

We’ve raised them at the school periodically. One thing I’ve noticed about the breed is that they tend to be very calm, roosters included. I don’t remember ever having an aggressive turken rooster.

A few years ago our FFA chapter participated in a demonstration project with the SPCA at our local Tractor Supply store. Among other animals, we brought a naked neck rooster who was the most tolerant chicken I’ve ever seen. He was totally unfazed when small children grabbed at him and barking dogs got inches from his face. Nothing upset him even when he was loose.

Turkens are strange looking birds because of a simple mutation that produces an inhibitor protein. Don’t let their looks confuse you. They are all chicken.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture 
at Northeastern High School.