The enigmatic birdbrain

I don’t understand poultry. If I could look at a chicken and read what passes for its mind, life might be a lot easier around here.

Explain to me why, when we introduced a new batch of three-month-old chickens into our flock of two-year-olds last summer, there was all-out gang warfare, but when we toss a couple of turkeys into the mix the chickens don’t seem even to notice.

The two turkeys that remain from our various attempts to cobble a flock together have taken to free-ranging with the chickens. All the birds wander around during the day, sticking pretty close. And we don’t even try to get the turkeys back in the turkey pen at night. Now that they both fly well enough to roost high in the trees at night, we let them. Although “let them” isn’t really an accurate description of what we do. “Can’t prevent them” is probably closer to the mark.

Chickens and turkeys lie down together under the same bush when it gets hot out, and they all drink from the same waterer. The turkeys eat some of the chickens’ corn, and the chickens eat some of the turkeys’ feed. They collude in finding ways to breach the garden fence. There’s the occasional kerfuffle, but most of the time peace reigns in the barnyard.

We hadn’t realized the extent to which the flock had become integrated until yesterday, when we had to keep the chickens in the run all day because we wouldn’t be home to lock them up in the evening. The two turkeys spent all their daylight hours hanging around outside the chicken coop, like it was like visiting day at the penitentiary.

We had peace, we had interspecies amity, and we had what appeared to be a system that kepts all the birds relatively safe. What we didn’t have was enough turkeys.

To go through all the trouble of raising turkeys for just two birds seems like a waste, so we decided over this past weekend that we wanted to beef up the flock. Trouble is, finding 2-month-old turkey poults for sale in July isn’t so easy. At least, that’s what we thought.

It’s funny how, once you start engaging in an activity that is new to you – chicken raising, beekeeping, gardening, mushroom hunting, whatever – you find there are lots of other people who discovered it a long time ago, and that you’re late to the party. I wouldn’t have imagined that eastern Massachusetts has a robust turkey-raising population, but evidence suggests that this is indeed the case.

We went to Craigslist, we searched on “poults,” and there they were. Not one, not two, but at least three people who had turkey poults to sell. We narrowed it down to the right age (about two months) and the right number (four), and Sunday found us heading off-Cape to pick up four Narragansett turkey poults, with maybe a little Bourbon Red mixed in.

The question was, what do we do with them?

We didn’t think we could just let them out of the cage to join our integrated flock. They’d never seen our house or our birds, they’d just had a scary truck ride, and the world was probably looking like a pretty threatening place.

For the first 24 hours, we put them in the treehouse in the turkey pen, which we can secure. We gave them a day to calm down, and then opened the door into the pen. They came out, and never looked back. So far, they’ve stayed in the pen – that’s three days, now. But we don’t know what they’re thinking.

For all we know, our four newcomers will be happy in their pen, and stay there for the duration. But I doubt it. Every other turkey we’ve ever had has figured out how to get out (although not a single pea-brained one of them has figured out how to get back in), and we figure these guys will be no exception. We have, in previous years, tried to put a roof over the part of the pen they’re most likely to fly out of, but it’s not a terribly effective strategy. We’re also a little reluctant to try this year, give the trouble we’ve had with raccoons. The turkeys’ best defense is their ability to fly, and we want them to have an escape route.

Give them an escape route and they will, inevitably, escape. But then what? Will they find the other birds, and join in just as seamlessly as the first turkeys did? Or will one side or the other initiate hostilities, and we’ll end up with an avian West Side Story? Or will they simply head for the hills?

I don’t understand poultry, so I have no idea.

18 people are having a conversation about “The enigmatic birdbrain

  1. I have had bantam chickens several times over the last 11 years. I found that when a hen broods a clutch of eggs, I can snatch most of the chicks and raise them in a brooder I made in the barn, fairly successfully. Ever the optimist, I leave a chick or three each time for the hen, just in case one manages to actually raise one or more. Sigh.

    I ran into the problem of putting new birds back into the flock, too. I found that putting the birds I am bringing in, into a wire carrier, and setting the carrier with new birds on the floor of the chicken house in late afternoon, then releasing the new birds into the flock the next day can help. The new birds always cower, they aren’t used to the roosts and usually huddle on the floor, and are universally on the low end of the pecking order. It usually takes a week or more for everyone to be comfortable, though the new birds usually remain timid for a couple of months.

    I suspect that the turnkeys don’t excite the pecking order frenzy, and especially don’t look like an invading flock of chickens, because they are a different species, different size (not smaller), and different behavior for pecking order. That, and I think the chickens had seen the turkeys, even if they hadn’t intermingled earlier. Thus, the turkeys would have somewhat familiar.

    I haven’t worked with turkeys. The closest I came was about eight years ago, when my neighbor had a half-turkey/half-chicken bird. I never heard or saw how that came out. So I don’t know how turkeys manage their pecking order, or how strong their flocking tendencies are.

    This is all, by the way, my working guess at the moment. Birds behave as they will, regardless of what I may think I have learned.

    • I have just introduced 3 new hens to my flock of 2 hens, 2 roosters (brothers) and 2 turkeys. Peace reigned until the new hens were added and the turkeys went into killer mode. At first they hated all 3 of the new girls, but now their hate is centred on a single hen and they’re ignoring the other two new girls. The one they hate is a dark cornish, the darkest chicken I have. She’s quite a brave girl, but she weighs maybe 2 pounds and my big turkey, Louise, is probably pushing 20 pounds, and her little sister, Bridget, close to 16 pounds. I’m keeping them separate of course, but does anybody have any idea how long this hatred will last? The turkeys really do want to kill her, which is astounding because they’ve been nothing but sweet gentle birds up until now.

      • In my (limited) experience, there’s just no accounting for poultry viciousness. Often, the only cure is the stewpot.

        The only suggestion I have is to keep the hen caged, but where all the other birds can mingle around. Perhaps they’ll just get accustomed to each other. If that doesn’t work, well, Thanksgiving is coming …

        I wish you luck. I know how distressing these kinds of things can be.

        • Not an option! I’m a vegan and the turkeys are pets, rescues. I’m hoping they’ll just get over it. Right now they can see each other through the mesh. They got over the other two new girls in a day, maybe Esmerelda just needs another day or so. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. Thanks for your reply. I’ll try to think of something to distract the turkeys or maybe figure out a way to pen them separately for a good long time.

          • Well, I guess it’s just another day at Starving off the Land when I suggest to a vegan that she kill her pets for dinner. Sorry about that. And good luck!

  2. Tamar, I used to wonder why there are no substantial books about how to raise heritage breed turkeys but now I understand. There really can’t be anything more than a series of first hand tales and no real formula fo success as there is with chickens. Each year is different.
    I am no expert and learn something new every day. However, the following may help a bit. Although turkeys can fly very well they would rather walk when they want to go somewhere. In general, flying is for escaping or roosting. They fly out of the pen when they are frightened or just want something on the other side. This does not occur to every bird though. We have a tom that just walks back and forth though he can easily fly out of the 6 foot garden fence that encloses his pen. This is also the only bird we have that goes to roost inside without being told. We just close the door behind him when we go out.
    Once out of their enclosure they will pace back and forth to go in or ignore it alltogether. I have never had one fly in. It just does not occur to them. Once evening approaches they go up to roost unless someone is there ahead of time to herd them in and lock the door behind them. Ours are used to going in but they still wait for us to come. In fact, they scold us if they perceive that we are late.
    One thing you can try if you want to cover the pen and keep out raccoons is electric fencing. I know of other turkey raisers that have done that successfully.

    Your new turkeys were raised by a hen and not humans and they always went in each night. It will be interesting to see if this makes a difference in their behavior.

    Also, turkey pecking order is similar to chickens. There will be a top Tom and then under him a top hen. Very often you can not have more than one tom without serious fighting. Then again, I know of people who have pulled this off. Within the hen population there is a top hen and then a seperate pecking order her. Unless you are keeping turkeys past Thanksgiving and into the breeding season there should not be too much trouble. Breeding season starts February/March depending on the weather.

  3. Hi Tamar, I know your enjoyment of keeping chickens does not extend to turkeys, but my gosh those little guys are really very cute hanging out on the tree branch! I hope they settle in well and at least partially integrate with the rest of your barnyard potpourri.

  4. Brad — I suspect you’re right. Turkeys aren’t on chickens’ radar, so they just live and let live.

    But I’m very curious about the half-chicken/half-turkey. I didn’t think that was possible. Is there really such a thing?

    Jessica — Thanks for the Turkeys 101! (And, for those of you who might be reading this who aren’t Jessica, she is the source of our Narragansetts.) The part about preferring to walk makes a lot of sense — an I wonder if it’s more true of the Narragansetts than the Standard Bronze. Our other birds did a little more flying and roosting, but these new guys might just be getting acclimated before they take to the skies.

    I’m not sure yet what our tom/hen ratio is. I think we got two males and two females from you, but it’s not a sure thing. And we just figured out that both our other turkeys are male — we thought we had one of each. So I’m anticipating some feather fluffing and chest bumping. Last year, we happened to have three of each, and it was very peaceful in the turkey pen.

    We’ll see how it goes. Thanks for following along and adding your know-how and experience. I very much appreciate it.

    Sharyn — That’s about the size of it, I think!

    Margaret — I like turkeys a lot more since we had ducks. I’m warming up to them.

  5. Turkeys must be pretty special birds. My grandmother once told me about the turkeys they raised- she insisted that turkeys were so stupid that they had to put them in with the chickens to teach them how to eat, and then put marbles in their feed to encourage them to eat! But they may have been raising super-hybrid dumbass turkeys and not cagey heirloom turkeys.

    My husband’s sister raised a tom for Thanksgiving one year and then got so attached to him that she couldn’t off him for the occasion.

    So a mountain lion got him.

    • And there you go. That’s nature for you. Moral of the story: eat it quick, before something else does.

  6. We have three turkeys: Standard Bronze, Royal Palm, and a White. They amuse me far more than my chickens do, and even my neighbor is begging me not to butcher them come Thanksgiving. I haven’t had any problems so far in my chicken/turkey experience, but they were raised together fairly closely, and its only now, 4 months into it that the two species separate in the yard for periods of time. Next year I plan on ordering from Porters Turkeys. All heritage or breeds they have started. Hopefully it goes as well.

  7. A friend gave me something to think about when I got my first turkeys. “This is going to be as simple or difficult as you make it.” He was right. We’ve been raising turkeys for 11-12 years. Two of our Bourbon Reds are 10 years old. We have two toms and five hens. We’ve also raised broad breasted whites and bronze.

    They don’t know how to drink or eat. Turkeys are naturally curious. They will peck at the food and water to find out what it is. Instinct is a wonderful thing.

    Turkeys will drown because they’re so stupid they stare into the rain. This was common years ago but has been corrected in research and education. The problem was caused by a thiamine deficiency. It was a lack of knowledge problem, not turkey stupidity.

    Turkeys will pace the fence rather than fly in because turkeys aren’t built to fly up. Watch a turkey when it takes off. They fly out and up most often. When they fly up it’s usually when panicked and at an angle that will cause them to crash into something. To fly into the pen the turkey needs to be far enough away from the fence to fly out and gain altitude. If they can’t see where they’re going they most likely aren’t going to take a chance. I have one hen that flies in on her own. The rest will wait for the door to be opened or the English Shepherd to force them into flight.

  8. Brooke & Robin — Thanks for bringing your turkey experiences here. Since I wrote the post, the turkeys have gotten out of the pen, never to return. They hang around the yard with the chickens and roost in the trees at night. Days when the chickens stay in, the turkeys mostly mill around the coop.

    Is this an unheard of strategy? I’ve concluded that the birds are safer in the trees than they are in the pen, but if they’re not safe in the trees, we’re going to have to move on to Plan C, whatever the hell that is.

    Robin, any help on this is much appreciated. And Brooke, I hope you have better luck this year than we have!

  9. This seems like a dumb question, but do the hens lay eggs? I have chickens so I know a little about how raising them works (would you post about that integration? I have 5 chicks that will meet the adult 4 in a few months…).

    But one never hears about turkey eggs…


    • CJ – If there were a prize for dumb questions, you’d be WAY out of the running. I won a long time ago.

      Yes, turkeys do lay eggs, and lots of people keep flocks and hatch eggs every spring. We opt to buy poults because we prefer not to have to keep the turkeys over the winter. We’d need better facilities (and a commitment to not spending time in Florida) if we were to maintain a flock.

      Good luck with your integration! It’s a black art, as far as I can tell. But forums like those at talk about it at some length. You might want to go investigate.

      Let me know how it goes, please!

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