Wednesday, November 26, 2014

wild about turkeys

baby Blue Slate turkey poult

I'm wild about turkeys.

And I'm wild about wild turkeys.

I'm not so wild about wild turkey, however.  Although they have a nice picture on their label.

wild turkeys at the Little Farm

Last year we watched (from afar, wild turkeys have dang good eyesight and hearing) a family of turkeys that would often cross our hay fields grazing for insects.  We watched the babies get bigger and bigger all season.

I wondered what happened to all of them over the winter, but this spring we began seeing them on our fields again.

{Happy dance!}

the tom struts, the hens ignore

Despite rumors to the contrary, perhaps instigated by their broad-breasted domestic cousins we've engineered to suit our Thanksgiving plates, turkeys are not stupid.  In fact, they are one of the smartest wild birds in North America.

I have been raising turkeys - both heritage and commercial breeds - for three years now, and I don't think any turkeys are stupid - commercial, heritage or wild.

Perhaps turkeys in general get their bad reputation from the fact that domestic turkeys are raised mostly in confinement operations with tens of thousands of turkeys to a pole building, where they do not get to express many of their natural turkey tendencies.

{The turkeyness of the turkey, to paraphrase Joel Salatin}

young slate turkeys explore the yard

A bird raised completely indoors, without any parents or older flock mates around to teach them anything, probably does have an intellectual disadvantage compared to those raised in more natural settings.

My turkeys, raised on pasture from the time they come out of the brooders, are very smart indeed.  Even the domestic Broad-Breasted Whites that I raised last year did exceedingly well on our pastures.

Turkeys will not stand outside in the rain, look up and drown.  Not even the Broad-Breasted Whites. Nor will they choose to stay out in the rain if they have a shelter to go into.

Turkeys are incredibly social.  Mine are even more social and playful than my chickens.  They remember which leg pocket I keep my gardening gloves in, and like to play games of "keep away" after snatching them out of my pocket and taking off across the paddock.

blue slate turkey on my head

I had a couple Blue Slate turkey hens that even liked to sit on my head or take naps in my lap.  They all readily take food treats out of my hands.

Turkeys are calmer as youngsters and show far less flightiness than chickens when I put my hands into the brooder, although they are more cautious than chicks when it come to exploring new items in their environment like treats they have not seen before.

Turkeys are seasonal breeders and egg layers which means they do not lay eggs year-round like chickens, probably because they have been raised more for meat production than egg production.  Laying chicken hens have been raised for generations to lay more and more eggs.

A tom turkey will not just jump on a hen like a rooster will with a chicken.  He does a lot of strutting, and when the hen is ready, she sits down.  He walks up and down her back for awhile, which helps get her ready.  Finally, she lifts her tail, he maneuvers his around hers, and they touch cloacas (called a "cloacal kiss").  It is a rather remarkable feat, if you ever get the chance to see it (there's a lot of it around this farm in the spring!).

Amazingly, a turkey hen can hold sperm from one mating up to a month, releasing a little bit with each egg.  Talk about preserving the harvest!

turkey poult hatching

A turkey egg takes 28 days to hatch.  Except mine usually start hatching on day 25 for some reason.  Chicken eggs usually take only 21 days to hatch.

A turkey baby is called a "poult," not a chick.  They are hatched with downy fuzz just like a chicken.  Poults, like chicks, have an egg tooth that they use to break out of their shell.  The egg tooth falls off soon after they hatch.

When hatching, first they "pip" a hole near the large end of the egg, then they "zip" a line of holes around the end of the egg.  Finally, they push the egg shell pieces apart.  This process can take 24 hours or longer.

{Pipping and zipping pics can be found here}

A turkey poult has a completely different vocabulary of peeps and trills than a chicken.  I was instantly captivated the first time I heard a poult peeping. I still am, every time.

{crazy turkey lady}

peep, Peep, PEEP! goes the turkey poult

It starts low and quiet, then escalates as it rises - peep, PeeP, PEEP!

My little poults like to pretend someone is in trouble or has flown out of the brooder by peeping loudly, non-stop until someone goes down to check on them.

As soon as you step into their room, they are instantly quiet.  Nothing amiss.

shhhh... mama's here!

I suspect as soon as you leave the room, they all start peep-giggling at you for falling for their trick.


Despite not being raised around their mothers (we've tried unsuccessfully to let some of our broody turkey hens hatch their own eggs and will keep on trying until we have successful hatches), our poults have shown a surprising number of instinctual behaviors like dust bathing at four days old, strutting (despite not having any tail feathers yet) at a week old, and trying to fly by running fast and flapping wildly from nearly the day they are hatched.

even baby turkeys strut their stuff!

They can fly out of their brooders by 2 weeks of age, which necessitates adding a screen cover to avoid having to go rescue them all day and night.

If ever we hook up a camera in the barn, I will watch the "turkey channel" all day long.  In the meantime, I will have to visit the brooder, the barn and the paddock to watch my little poults grow up into the beautiful birds that will grace many local Thanksgiving tables.

"How can you send your birds to market?" I often get asked.

Indeed, the day after the turkeys go to market is one of the saddest days on our farm.  The paddock seems empty and lifeless after the chatter and commotion of turkeys all summer long.

Sweetgrass flock at Litengård - Little Farm

But the answer is simple - for every bird we raise and sell, one less turkey is purchased from Costco or Malwart - and one less turkey spent its entire life in a pole building, suffocating from ammonia and trampled by its thousands of companions.

By raising meat animals to sell to conscientious consumers, we reduce the amount of animal suffering.  And that, for me, is worth the pain of losing my beloved birds every fall.

Happy Thanksgiving -
Gypsy Farmgirl loves turkeys


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