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HAMILTON – Angela Krebs gets turkey psychology – Red Bourbon Heritage turkey psychology, to be exact. 

Since 2007, she and her daughter, Rebecca, have raised the rare heritage birds on their small farm near Hamilton, Canyon Creek Poultry.

The turkeys - they have about 50 at the moment - are deep red in color, with patches of bright white plumes on the flight and tail feathers. 

Neither Angela nor Rebecca are fazed by the seemingly wild turkey behavior.

The adolescent males vie for seniority, bumping chests and making guttural noises, while flashy hens flirt by flouncing their tail feathers and stomping around their favored tom.

The dominant toms dance a slow, solo step, fluffing their feathers in hopes of piquing a hen's interest.

"They just want to be naughty to each other right now," Angela explained, as three adolescent males pecked at each other. 

It's a regular farm animal soap opera. 

"They live such a happy life here," she said. "When we are down to these numbers, it may not feel low key to you, but it's low key to us." 

***

It's true, the excitement ebbs and flows, as the free-range birds have a whole field to forage in. Their behavior is much like the flocks of turkeys Angela and her family sees in the wild. 

Since switching from raising the commercial broad-breasted white variety to raising the heritage breed eight years ago, Angela has worked to reach the American Standard of Perfection for the rare bird.

That means every year she and Rebecca only select about 10 percent of the turkeys for breeding.

Birds are selected on their color - the Red Bourbon is known for its dark red or brown feathers - and its weight. Male birds should weigh about 30 pounds.  

The other 90 percent are sold as poults, or chicks, adult birds or as processed birds.

"It's a great family experience," she said. "There's a real joy in producing your own food, and fulfillment when you know what goes into the process. You feel better about eating it."

Sustainability is another reason why Angela switched to raising the heritage breed. The animals are bigger and able to breed by themselves, while commercial broad-breasted turkeys, which became popular in the 1950s, are not able to reproduce on their own.

And unlike the commercial variety, Angela's hens can raise their own chicks.

Most importantly, they taste better, she says.  

***

"The more I've learned, the more personable they are," she said.

The turkeys, both the toms and hens, are curious. They untie Angela's shoes a few times and tug at her jean skirt, but there are no overtly aggressive toms in the bunch. 

They've even taught Angela a thing or two.

"Establish your pecking order quickly in life," she jokes. 

The farm also produces heritage chickens, large black hogs, and Nigerian dwarf goats, along with sheep and geese.

Of course, Angela has a garden as well.

She raises the heritage birds as a breeder and to sell to other people who want to raise their own food. She said she has "a heart for the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys," and she would like to see people have as much fun with raising their animals as she does.

"It was a real joy to get into larger birds and work toward goals with them," she said. "I find it interesting, challenging and more meaningful."

"It required a large effort in research and education," she added. "It's been a challenge to breed for certain qualities, and I get enjoyment out of that. Even the frustration (of breeding) keeps you going."  

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