I know it sounds kind of weird, but for a long while, we kept turkeys as pets and companions.
It all started after my kids had suffered a serious bout of the flu. Both had ended up in the hospital for dehydration. Both had spend weeks in bed, with all the fury that flu can muster against little children. A toddler and a 5 year old at the time. And when the fevers broke, when solid food was held down, when the symptoms subsided, my children needed to be cheered up. I needed some cheering myself, because that year, had been so stressful, that at the time, I felt as if years had been taken off of my life. Whenever a small child gets that sick, it can just scare the hell out of you.
Well it was very early spring. And We were just starting that whole homeschooling thing, and I thought, what the hell, lets get some chicks for the kids to raise. That will be their first big life science project.
Follow me through the orange portal if this hasn't activated your "boredom organ".
So we hit a ranch supply type store, and we bought some some turkey poults. Now Turkeys are not chickens. I thought it would be easier to raise turkeys, because there would be fewer of them, they are larger when they grow up, and so once they get to a certain size, stray cats, small dogs and hawks don't want anything to do with them.
I had raised ducks and geese many years before this--like 30 years ago, so I was a little rusty and dealing with a different species.
We sort of hoofed it, did things off the cuff at first.
We had a big cardboard box, we put bedding in it. We had a waterer for them and a feeder, and a light to keep them warm. We bought 2 poults.
In my ignorance of turkey breeds, we bought 2 Deep Breasted White turkey poults. These birds have been bred for meat production exclusively and are very short lived. A friend we make at a later date will inform me in whispers what to expect.
The kitchen was the warmest room in the house and it had a hard floor. So we kept them in there for a time. As they got older and bigger, they began to perch on the edge of the box. I know that some people would be horrified to have turkey's in their kitchen, or any kind of live fowl. But I thought it was rather charming to get up in the morning to make coffee, and these little fuzzy white birds staring at me with great big eyes, chirruping and whistling to me and to each other while I had my morning caffeine.
The kids had great fun, hand feeding them and occasionally, gently petting them.
All birds grow quickly, and these birds were no exception. Soon we had to move them outside, because they wouldn't stay in the box and because they were growing so big so fast. Both were about the size of a very tall rooster. We prepared a place in the barn for them at night.
We lost one to a raccoon, that had dug under the door of the barn. That left one lonely Thom Turkey.
So that following season, we bought some chicks to keep him company.
We ended up with about 19 chicks. We quickly learned that if you want hens, you have to buy pullets, if you want too many roosters, buy St. Run which is short for Straight Run.
Straight Run means the chicks have not been sexed to tell their gender. Generally a clutch will produce 2 roosters for every hen. This wasn't a problem at first because they were small and not interested in mating. This is a whole other story--btw. What happens when ignorant mom buys straight run chicks? Hilarity ensues.
Our biggest problem at that time was to keep that Turkey from pecking the babies to death. Bigger birds will kill baby birds. Some will eat them as well. So we had to keep them in adjacent pens for a while, til the chicks got large enough to fend for themselves.
Eventually all the birds reached a size and maturity, that they were able to coexist. What we learned is that having a Turkey in your flock of chickens will deter birds of prey, small dogs, and stray cats. Having a full grown male turkey in your yard will also deter trespassers and soliciters. A full grown male turkey strutting and hissing, especially a commercial breed, is tall and intimidating. And they can inflict quite a bite.
Of course they are insufferably nosy too. And have to come and inspect every little thing you do outside, to the point of literally breathing down your neck and over your shoulder, pecking at your shiny tools, buttons and parts. Hey, he's just there to help you!
Turkey's hate bicycles, wagons, and cars. I think it's the shiny hubcaps and the sound they make rolling. They will put on a display and chase them if given the chance. Thom often displayed for low flying aircraft as well. Gobbling into the air as loud as he could and the strutting and hissing with his massive tail fanned out.
This poor old Thom seemed lonely. We had been told that he wouldn't live long because of his breed. We were in denial, because we adored that silly bird. He was like a big dog that follows you around and escorts the chickens throughout the pasture. So we found a game bird breeder and bought some wild turkey stock.
We had to raise them separate from the chickens because chickens and turkey poults can give each other diseases. These wild birds were completely different, like a dog is to a wolf. They didn't want to be handled at all. They still had all their instincts intact. They could fly immediately and not just a couple of hops, but really fly. We had to be extra careful with them in the house, because they might fly into a window or fan.
And if anythings scared these birds, they would go catatonic and stop eating and drinking, just waiting for you to eat them.
The difference between the domestic deep breasted turkey and the wild turkey was dramatic. They looked like before and after photos for diet pills. Thom was enormous and fat. He huffed and puffed when he walked, like he smoked 3 packs a day when we weren't watching. He couldn't run very fast. Even his bones were thicker than the wild birds, 2 or 3 times thicker, to support his massive weight. He was also taller. He would weigh over 60 pounds when he finally passed on from this world.
The wild turkeys could fly. Thom could fly when he was an adolescent, but just enough to get up on a perch. He couldn't fly to escape like these birds could. He would get to a weight, where he couldn't even hop up on a low perch.
There is a reason they call Turkey Vultures, "Turkey" vultures. They have a similar silhouette when they fly high above you. Wild Turkeys can fly, and glide. They can roost way up in tall trees if they want to, especially the hens.
The wild turkeys seemed to sort of take care of Thom in some weird way. They could have flown off to look for a wild flock, but instead stayed with him until he died. Males might fight in the wild, but in this case, the males formed an alliance. While Thom was alive, our yard and pasture was their territory and they patrolled it diligently.
We tried to adjust Thom's diet to stop his weight gain. We made lots of oat meal with apples in it for him. We thought that perhaps this might help with the cholesterol and maybe his heart. I think it prolonged his life by a few months.
He was almost 2 when one of his legs dislocated from his hip. He stopped and eating and drinking. There was nothing to do for him. He was so heavy, that the leg would never heal. He would not be able to walk on it.
Shortly after he died, a stray dog pulled our wild tom out of a tree and killed him. He had roosted low enough and outside of the chicken pen, that something, most likely a dog, pulled him down. Turkeys do not see well at night, so that is when they have to most problems with dogs and bobcats. The hens that were left, had reached maturity and began to fly off regularly in search of a flock. Eventually they never came back.
We stopped eating turkey after that. It was too much like eating the dog.
We haven't raised any more turkeys since then. They eat a lot which means it is expensive to keep one as a pet. We won't ever buy a deep breasted bird, now they we understand their unique health problems. In fact we find it abhorrent that anyone would raise an animal, create a breed that becomes so fat, that it is incapable of mating without assistance. If humanity were to disappear tomorrow, these deep breasted breeds of turkeys would follow 12 to 14 months after. Legs broke from being fat, and unable to mate and reproduce, because we bred them to be all fat and no brains.
We haven't raised wild stock either. They will eventually look for other wild flocks to merge with. And this area is quickly becoming a suburban nightmare. We worried that because these birds were hand raised, that it might bring them into harm's way, that they might be abused for our ignorance, because we taught them that humans mean food and protection, when often the opposite is true.
One of our hens did return one time after a whole summer passed. Something had gotten hold of her and stressed her so bad, that all of her feathers fell out. We put her in a special pen and fed her, and kept her through the winter, til her feathers grew back so that she could keep warm. She left the next spring, and didn't return.
Sometimes we see small flocks of wild turkeys. They come in from the drought to drink at automatic sprinklers at some of the gated communities. It's not unusual to see a hen with a clutch of poults darting in and out of the evergreen plantings, chasing grasshoppers and drinking from puddles. They are amazingly graceful and lithe. We like to imagine that the hens we raised are out there, somewhere, with their babies, content in her rightful place amongst her own kind and in what is left of the wild.
They are charming birds, with liquid eyes. We miss them, and yet do not want to diminish the wild stock by making them pets. Our ignorance has been abated in this manner and so we see the wild birds and experience a pang of nostalgia, and let them pass back into the wilds where they belong. Seeing them now has become an omen for us, like the rainbow after the flood is for some people, or perhaps the appearance of a blue bird. We see them in their natural state, and all is right with the world. We feel blessed in that moment, mother nature gave us a peak at something wonderful and sacred.
Now before you run out all dewy-eyed to pet a wild turkey, let me warn you. They are fierce creatures that can hurt you. Males in the wild do form alliances, within flocks and often gang up on other animals, even humans, and scratch and peck them. These are large birds, that can fly and truly make an assault on a person. So don't attempt to approach them in the wild. This is extra true with children. Even domestic birds can be dangerous if they feel cornered and shouldn't be allowed unattended with small children. Our turkeys were sweet up to a point, but they could still be bullies. And as with all domesticated animals, they are individuals. Some are sweet and others, no matter what you do, are territorial and aggressive.
I remember once, one of the kids had a bright yellow and orange, sparkly Halloween costume on, and the turkeys had a fit. They didn't recognize this being, as one of the children. They didn't like this other showy "bird-thing" in their territory and proceeded to chase "it" all over the yard making their unique calls that indicated a dangerous trespasser. Any bright colored object, or brightly dressed human was fair game. So heads up.
There are a variety of flicks on youtube of turkey assaults.
I really feel for the poor lady in this clip. The turkey is making vocalizations, that indicate it is not amused and feels that she is in his territory and is a threat of some kind. Luckily he didn't decide to jump up in the air and claw her. He is quite persistent, circling her car. If she had kept filming, the that tom would have fanned his tail and strutted and hissed, and probably gobbled at the car, trying to challenge the car. Someone else got footage of a wild Tom challenging his domestic bird, probably a Standard Bronze in the pen. A fence separates them, so no one was hurt.
Here is another video, showing a turkey evading a Golden Eagle.
This appears to be a video of someone's pet turkey, challenging the postal van. It's big, white, with red and blue marks. So in the Turkey's world, it's a big giant male challenger. Note that it's the same colors on the turkey's head.
Turkey's are walking mood rings, and their heads will change color depending upon their mood. Domestic turkeys can be much friendlier than adult wild turkeys, because they are easier to hand feed, and they don't change like wild poults do. Wild poults will tolerate you up to a point, but once they reach sexual maturity, it's like a switch flips, especially for the males. It's like you never existed, you become a stranger to them.
Our white tom, escorted the kids all over the yard, and often played in the mud puddles with them, and would help them dig out the garden beds, when planting. It's a shame their life is so shortened by these breeding practices.
We thought about getting other breeds, that aren't bred to get so fat and unhealthy, like Royal Palms. There are several different breeds of turkey to choose from, you can do a search of turkey breeds online, and it will pull up quite a selection.
The last few years, we did chicken for Thanksgiving. We haven't become vegans, though we have backed off of the amount of meat we eat, and we have started to buy our food more mindfully, especially the meat products.
I hope you enjoyed the story. If you do a search on youtube, you can find a large collection of Turkey videos to entertain you or the kids today. I also highly recommend this PBS NATURE show, My Life As a Turkey. I have linked to the full length episode. It might even be showing right now on local stations.