December 2020 – The Ridley Bronze, Canada’s Only Heritage Turkey

Becoming turkey farmers and raising what we call ‘tiny dinosaurs’ was something we never imagined that we would ever be doing, not to mention becoming one of the few Canadian farms to be keeping an endangered species alive. The Ridley Bronze Turkey is listed as ‘Critical’ on the Rare Breeds of Canada Conservation List, and we are doing everything we can to preserve this breed.

Every day, we are learning more about this fascinating creature. Many people are unaware that heritage birds, unlike the supermarket turkeys, can run up to 25mph, fly up to 60mph and fly up to 35 feet into the treetops! They are very independent foragers and do not like to be contained in any sort of building. They take twice as long to raise as they grow at a slower rate than commercial birds. Many farmers will clip their wings, but with so many predators in the area such as mink that can destroy a flock within minutes, we leave them with their only real natural defence of flight.

Now that you have some background of raising heritage birds, here is the story of the Ridleys Canada’s only Heritage Turkey. In the 1940s, J. H. Richardson of Saltcoats Saskatchewan spent an undetermined amount of time travelling throughout Canada and the US seeking out the best turkey breeding stock available. He was specifically looking for qualities of gentle temperament, personable nature, and natural ability to reproduce and forage.

He crossed them together until he felt that is was perfected. The turkey strain became unique to Canada, and once ideal Richardson never crossed them again, but instead spent 20 years raising them on his Richardson Turkey Ranch.

During the 40s and 50s, members of the Ridley family worked for J.H. Richardson, and eventually started their own farms which were dedicated to this particular breed. In the late 50s, George Ridley, developed his own breeding farm in Leslie, SK and continued to raise them for another 20 years.

When George Ridley moved away in 1981 the University of Saskatchewan obtained his turkeys and developed a program for studying and breeding. The University is thought to have coined the name “Ridley Bronze” after George. The rest of the Ridley family had all dispersed their flocks, so the fate of the Ridley Bronze turkey now was in the hands of only the University and small private breeders.

In 2008 the University of Saskatchewan had to close their program due to budget cutbacks, and their flock of 200 was dispersed to private farms, but unfortunately most were lost to disease and predation within a few short years. The Ridley Bronze Turkey was now left to the small farmer for its survival.

Rare Breeds Canada recorded only 90 breeding females left in the world in 2010. In 2012 there were 225 breeding females, and in 2015 just up slightly to 250. The small farmers committed to improving these numbers have now dropped from 50 to 30 across Canada as of 2015. Part of the problem is that these turkeys are left to breed on their own naturally, unlike commercial birds that are incapable due to their large breast structure, and are mass produced.

I will never forget the awe that I was in when I realized the little turkey poults we obtained from a small farm were so unique and important. With an entirely new appreciation for the importance of our endeavour, our year-round flock consists of only Ridley Bronze to hopefully help bring those numbers up from “Critical” and improve the lines to top Standards of Perfection.

We have recognized their wonderful temperament, natural foraging ability and resilience in our ever changing climate. Not to mention they love a good snuggle and to come for guided walks with us, as they just love people. When they have the ability to fly away and so high in the forest canopy, but they still run towards the sound of our voices, I would have to say they are pretty happy to be here.

Angela Hicke – Van Isle Wild

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