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Blue Slate Turkeys
by Laura Phillips

Blue Slate Turkey


The gene pool of this rare, but beautiful variety was on the decline, and each year the hatch rate declined, and there weren't as many strong poults among those that did hatch. Such is the nature of breeding very rare types of poultry.

A few years ago, I acquired six rare Blue Slate poults along with the season's usual batch of Broad-Breasted Bronzes. Five weren't strong and didn't compete well against the bigger, more vigorous Bronzes. I understood. I'd already been warned by the hatchery worker who called me the second time my order was delayed because of a disappointed hatch rate at her hatchery. The gene pool of this rare, but beautiful variety was on the decline, and each year the hatch rate declined, and there weren't as many strong poults among those that did hatch. Such is the nature of breeding very rare types of poultry.

The sixth poult, though, was a titan. She grew quickly, and she vigorously defend her position at the feeder. Time passed, and she grew into a large, strong hen with rich, ash blue feathers speckled with black. Slate became a family pet, and we had high hopes for either acquiring or raising a mate and maybe a few others to keep her company.

Unfortunately, a pack of domestic dogs foiled that plan. The dogs were large, well-fed and groomed, and bored. They'd been seen running as a pack during the day and harassing livestock over a wide-spread area. Eventually they reached my place, and Slate was one of their victims. Her wounds were extensive, worse than anything I'd ever seen on a bird that still breathed. She lived a couple of days, which was miraculous considering the extent of the damage. We did everything possible, knowing she'd be crippled, but hoping she could still produce offspring. We didn't want to lose whatever genes had produced a bird with such vigor and strong survival instincts. We lost her, of course, but are determined to start over with this variety.

General description

Called both Slate and Blue Slate, this variety is named for its color, a solid ashy blue over the entire body. The actual color patterns and inheritability is a bit complex. Most breeders I've dealt with consider there to be three color types within the variety.

The true Blue Slate is an ashy blue color with black dots scattered across the feathers. This type occasionally is called a Splash.

A Blue doesn't have the black dots, and may be have more washed out color than the Slate. Then there are the Blacks, which are, of course, have all black feathers. These Blacks will have the pink shanks and toes, which distinguishes them from the standard for Spanish Blacks in the U.S. and the Norfolk Blacks in England, both of which feature black shanks and toes.

This variety in color patterns makes breeding for a particular color interesting. Briefly, here are the guidelines for that:

A Slate bred to another Slate will produce all Slates, therefore breeding true.

Breeding Blue to Blue will produce turkeys of all three color patterns, Slate, Blue, and Black.

Blue to Black produces Blues and Blacks with no Slates.

Black to Black produces only Black, thus breeding true.

Hens in the Slate and Blue color patterns generally are lighter in color than toms. Hens and toms of all three color patterns have red to bluish white wattles, heads, and throats. They have have horn-colored beaks, brown eyes, black beards, and pin shanks and toes. Hens average about 18 pounds, toms about 27.

Poults are grayish yellow fluffs. The lightest will mature into a true Blue Slate color or the paler, washed-out gray that is called Blue or sometimes called Lavender. Whether this is the same as the Lavender color type, I can't say at this point. The darker poults will mature into black or mostly black adults. Experienced breeders generally keep a percentage of blacks in their breeding flocks. Otherwise, I've been told, the color of successive generations gradually fades to a washed out gray, and then to near-white.

Some poults are strong and vigorous of growth, and these make the best breeders. In the poults I've received, however, these strong ones aren't as numerous as in other turkey varieties I've raised. This is likely due to the declining numbers and the accompanying decline in the diversity of the gene pool. Hatch numbers and quality are declining in many flocks. As a result, there is a concerted effort among some breeders to reverse this trend. Some are breeding Spanish Blacks with the Blues and Slates in an attempt to widen the gene pool. Others are exchanging breeding stock with distant flocks. My plan for my own small flock includes obtaining Blue Slate poults from several unrelated flocks in the hope that my foundation stock will be as diverse as possible. I'm sure I'll end up with all three color patterns, and although I prefer the Slate pattern, I'll keep a Black or two around.

History

The Blue Slate variety is thought to have been derived from the black turkey known as the Spanish Black in the United States and the Norfolk Black in England. The Slate was accepted as a standard variety by the American Poultry Association in 1874, incidentally the same year as the Spanish Black.

Slates never gained popularity as a commercial type. The variety now is classified as critically rare by the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Australian Rare and Minority Breeds Association.

The 1998 census by the American Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities found 108 females and 35 toms, among twelve breeders. The largest flock had 50 hens. No doubt some flocks may have been missed, but that would be true of any of the varieties. Because Slates are so rare, it's wise to order your poults as early in the season as possible and be prepared for delays and disappointment if the hatch isn't as good as expected. Such is the nature of working with rare, heritage breeds.

Copyright 2001: Laura Phillips

This article is reprinted with the kind permission of the author

Photo courtesy of Pam Marshall and www.feathersite.com

Blue Slate Photos -

www.techdach.com

www.feathersite.com

Hatcheries with Websites

www.heartlandhatchery.com

www.cacklehatchery.com

Lists of other hatcheries, some of which have Blue Slates

rare-heritage-turkey.freeyellow.com/sources.html

www.feathersite.com

About the Author: Laura Phillips raises Bourbon Red and Blue Slate turkeys on her mini-farm in Missouri, and also is involved in a breeding program aimed at reviving the old-fashioned farm collie as a working breed. She longs for more acreage so she can work with several other heritage breeds. She's also an author and a professional soapmaker. She teaches soapmaking and other "lost arts", gardens, spins, knits, and is skilled in several other "lost arts." For Laura, these are more than hobbies. They're all facets of an integrated lifestyle and philosophy. You can read more of her work at Suite101


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