Ten Things We May Not Know About Turkeys

We asked Susie Coston, National Shelter Director at Farm Sanctuary,  to talk us through ten things we may not know about Turkeys. Here is what this Turkey momma, caregiver and animal whisperer tells us about our Turkey friends.

1. Turkeys form lifetime bonds and you can always see the same turkeys together. Example- Henrietta, Gobbles, and Lila at our Acton shelter sleep together, dust bathe together and are never more than a few feet apart.

2. Each turkey has  a very unique personality.  In our flock in Watkins Glen, we have some real characters.  I have included pictures of Antoinette- the greater and one of our more curious girls.  She loves people but also loves to get into things- like the healthcare kit.  If you leave it opened there are inevitably going to be bags of medication tossed around the barn- until she finds something she likes that she will run away with.

3. Wild turkeys can fly short distances and up to 55 miles an hour.  Industrial birds, the majority being Broad Breasted whites, cannot fly although our young birds attempt to do so- see attached photos of turkeys in trees.  We used to have to get them out of the trees each night to put them safely to bed.  They still could not go up as high as the wild turkeys so would not have been safe from predators outside.

4. Although turkeys, broad breasted whites, raised for food have been bread to be so much larger than their wild cousins they still possess the same instincts.  Sadly because of their enormous size they cannot naturally mate, cannot roost, cannot fly, and cannot perch as they grow.  When they are small they still try of course to do all those things.  They do still dust bath, bask in the sun and really enjoy life.

5. Turkeys are very emotional birds and experience moments of sadness, happiness, fear, etc. just like all human and non-human animals do.  Daphne- who lost her very best friend Velma, showed as that Turkeys mourn loss, just like people.  After the death of Velma Daphne had a complete personality change, not wanting attention which she and Velma both used to thrive on, and also not wanting the companionship of other turkeys for almost a year after Velma died.  She became aggressive with the other turkeys and wanted nothing to do with any of them.  Finally she seems to have stopped grieving and is developing a friendship with one of the older turkeys, Rhonda, who she has lived with for years.  They have very complex emotions. (photo of Daphne- Photo credit Jo-Anne McArthur- photo of Daphne and Velma together FS)

6. Turkeys are amazing mothers. Tragically, millions of turkeys raised in the industry for food never experience the bond of being or having a mother.  The females are artificially inseminated and eggs are raised in hatcheries so there is no contact between mothers and their babies.  This is likely due to the fiercely protective nature of the mother turkey, who will lose her own life protecting her children.

7. Turkeys are very aware of their surroundings and vocalize warnings if they see approaching danger- hawks, dogs, even cats cause quite a stir.  If I hear a high popping sound coming from the turkey pen I can usually guess what all the commotion is about.  If there is a circle of turkeys popping snakes are usually the cause of the problem.  They are also so much more observant than most humans.  I attached a photo of a group looking up- and when I tried to find what was causing this- it was a tiny speck of a plane in the sky- looked like a white dot.  Nothing I would have noticed unless they made me look up in the sky!   Also- the photo of the piglet is Jane- and she did not even notice the turkeys sneaking up on her as she ate their grass in their yard.  They were not frightened but were signaling with warning noises as they approached.  It was amazing.  (see photo of turkeys looking up and checking out the piglet- FS pics)

8. Turkeys form bonds with humans, chickens, and a variety of other species.  Many turkeys, who really enjoy humans, will come running when you call their names.   See picture of Cicada and Fennel (JoAnne McArthur credited).  Fennel had problems living with his fellow roosters when he came and was the low man on the totem pole.  When we moved him into the turkey barn Cicada took to him immediately and spent hours following him around, and grooming him.  They stayed together until Cicada passed away from old age.  An amazing relationship!

9. Industrial turkeys have been bred to be larger and larger each year, contributing to health issues.  Just since the 1920s turkeys went from a 12-13 pound slaughter weight to almost 30 pounds.  This is very hard on their skeletal system and their organs even before they are 6 months old.

10. Detoeing, desnooding and debeaking are done on industrial farms where turkeys are raised in very close quarters in order to keep the birds from fighting.  These procedures are done on the tiny poults- the babies before they are even 72 hours old and done without anesthesia.  There are nerve endings in the toes and the beak especially, so this is a very painful process.  It also causes health problems later in life for all the birds   The beak of the bird is like their fingertips and they use it to explore the world, so with part of the beak removed not only is there residual pain in the beak area but they cannot pick at tiny amounts of food, seeds, etc.. so have difficulty doing normal turkey things. (debeaked, detoed, desnooded photos included)

Thank you for these important Turkey Truths, Susie. And thank you for all you do for our turkey friends, and all of us. The Universe is a much kinder place because of your and Farm Sanctuary’s  efforts and work in the world.

Good food is kind to people, animals, the environment, and especially tastebuds. That’s exactly the kind of food we’ve been making at Tofurky for more than 35 years.

  1. I have a turkey that I have cared for now for a year. He was abandoned. He lived in a parking lot. He ended up following me home about two blocks and is very attached to me. He is very sweet and smart. They are very smart and emotional animals.

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