For reasons I wasn’t really sure about, my housemate decided early this year that turkeys were going to be the next addition to our flock. I was personally hoping for some Cayuga ducks. We’d been dealing with chickens more recently and have had a few ducks in our backyard for the better part of two years, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when she came home with two large pet carriers stuffed with our new flock additions. We started with a tom (male) and a hen, with hopes that we would get eggs and maybe a few chicks to sell.
I think just about anyone’s first reaction to turkeys when they’re used to chickens is that turkeys are huge. Our hen, whom we named Mrs. Higgenbottom, towered over our largest roosters, and the tom (Benedict) looked almost like he could be ridden around the yard.
The first thing our hen did was leave. We don’t fence our flock, and watched with mild frustration as she moseyed her way past the edge of the property within the first few minutes of being released. We hurried over to catch and carry her back into the yard, and for the first day or two she decided she hated everything about us and perched herself on the barn roof. Eventually we managed to herd her toward her partner, and once they both figured out the feeding schedule it was easier to keep them around.
Anyone who keeps backyard fowl knows how much personality these birds really have, and turkeys are no exception. These birds can be a little noisy, but their calls are unique to the point that I’m able to tell which turkey I’m hearing. They’re also very flirty, and don’t need much reason to show off their plumage. They move much more slowly than chickens and seem to calculate every action. The only sudden movements I’ve seen from our turkeys is when they’re defending themselves from the peck of a rooster, or scattering to make way for a dog rush. For the most part, turkeys will seem to wander around the yard on tiptoes, observing everything around them. It’s an unusual juxtaposition to the bustle of our chickens. Turkeys also cover a lot more ground than chickens when searching for food, so if bugs and a large yard are your problem, turkeys might be the answer.
A few months after settling in, we started getting our first eggs. Unlike the ducks and chickens, our turkey seemed less interested in joining the two or three “communal nests” we normally have around the yard. Turkeys also lay far fewer eggs than chickens or ducks – at the peak of her cycle, we got maybe two per week, and she has not produced any since her last chicks were hatched almost six months ago. Most info sites will tell you that turkeys go broody very easily, and this is absolutely true. We took advantage of her 3+ brooding sessions and pushed a few extra chicken and duck eggs into her pile. Be careful of a broody turkey – ours threatened us with a loud hiss anytime we got too close!
One of the greatest discoveries about our turkeys is how family-orientated they can be. Some of our hens have been terrible mothers and don’t pay much attention to their hatchlings, but Mrs. Higgenbottom is a very attentive mom. She kept very close watch over her chicks (even the “adopted” ducklings) and would search frantically if anyone got separated from the group. More surprising still – the tom took part in parenting as well! He stuck close to the mom and her clutch as a watchful protector, and even started leading the chicks around on his own after they had grown a little more.
Keeping turkeys this past year has been an interesting learning experience, and it’s been great to be able to watch the family develop from our first pair into a small group parading the yard. Turkeys are more than a Thanksgiving tradition– they can be the source of a lot of enjoyment when you add them to your backyard flock.