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Turkeys 101

When I first started this blog, the only followers were other hobby farmers.

Fast forward over three years, and it’s a different story. I love my followers and I’m truly grateful to anyone that takes a second out of their day to listen to little ole me. . . . Thank you!

But I’ve been thinking, and I’ve realized that some of the things that I talk about on here (you know, bucklings, kidding season, hatching, soap making, etc) are probably not topics that most people discuss everyday.

They are for me, but before our little farm was started, that wasn’t the case. Back then, I hadn’t the first clue about the difference between a hen and a pullet or that you could actually eat fertilized eggs. 

So, I propose this: a series of 101 posts about the topics you’re most likely to encounter on this little piece of cyberspace. And, since it’s November (or better known around here as Jim Bob’s Month), let’s start with turkeys.

 Turkey 101

What do you call male and female turkeys?

Young males are called jakes, while adults are toms (or gobblers). Young females are called jennies, while adults are hens. And chicks, they’re called poults, but unless you’re talking to someone who takes their turkeys very seriously, you’ll most likely hear them called chicks.

How long do their eggs take to hatch? 

About 28 days, give or take. You can hatch them using natural incubation (meaning using a broody turkey hen or a broody chicken to sit on them) or artificial incubation (i.e. incubator). 

How many breeds are there? 

A lot. There are many heritage breeds (ones that our farming forefathers commonly kept), some of those are endangered. There are even extinct breeds (some of which, breeders are diligently working on recreating). Then, there are more commonly found breeds (we’ll get to those in a moment).

There are small turkeys (such as Midget Whites) and large ones (White Hollands). And of course, turkeys are bred in an amazing assortment of colors. Like Chocolate (literally Chocolate turkeys – and on my wish list). Black (Black Spanish). Or how about buff (Jersey Buffs)?

Then, there are the two breeds most commonly consumed in the US: Broad Breasted Bronze and Broad Breasted Whites (with the Whites being the most popular of the two because they make a more attractive carcass). Both are the creations of modern industrial agriculture, and are bred to reach maturity very rapidly, which in turn shortens their natural lifespan and makes it difficult for them to breed. In fact, nearly all Broast Breasted turkeys are artificially inseminated. Oh, yeah. . . . you read that right.

So, in other words, if you’re looking to breed or have a turkey as a pet, choose one of the heritage breeds, instead. But if you’re looking for a breed to raise quickly to slaughter age, the Broad Breasted ones might be the choice for you. 

What is strutting and gobbling? 

See video below. When you see pictures of a beautiful tom turkey with his wings down and his tail feathers fanned out behind him. . . . that’s strutting. The loud noise that the tom makes, that’s gobbling. Both are done to attract a mate. Although, sometimes female turkeys will also strut. 

How do you sex turkey poults?

Sexing turkeys isn’t quite as easy as other types of birds. For the most part, look for the ones that are bigger, have thicker legs, and bigger snood bumps. In some breeds (like Bourbon Reds), once the poults have feathered out and have their adult plumage, check the tips of the feathers on the back and chest. On males, the feathers will have black edging on the tips. See the picture of our Bourbon Red tom’s, Jim Bob, feathers below.

Jim Bob Feathers

Do turkeys really have a beard? 

They sure do. See the picture of one of our turkeys, Snoody, below. They also have a snood (that’s the long fleshy thing that droops down over their beak) and caruncles (the large bumps).

Turkey Anatomy

 And a little closeup view of the snood and caruncles. A little odd looking, huh?

Jim Bob Anatomy 

Are turkeys easy to raise?

I’m going to tell you the truth. They’re not as easy as chickens or ducks, at least not to me. The old belief that turkeys drown while looking up at the rain isn’t true, but they can be sensitive to their brooder conditions. With proper care, they’ll grow in to beautiful, gobbling birds. Just remember the old saying, “A cold and wet poult is a dead poult.”

How do you brood poults?

You can use a brooder that you’ve bought or built specifically for that purpose, but a lot of people make do with shipping crates, plastic storage totes, etc so long as the birds aren’t overcrowded and have enough room to spread out if need be. 

For bedding, you can use wood shavings (only pine, never cedar since it’s known to cause health issues in birds), paper towels, old towels, etc. Some people use newspaper, however, as it’s a slippery surface and doesn’t provide enough traction for the poults it can (and will) cause orthopedic problems (example: splayed legs). 

Poults will need to be kept warm with a heat lamp (or even a Brinsea EcoGlow Brooder – on my wishlist) for the first few weeks. For the first week, 95 – 98 F degrees is ideal, and after that reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week until they’re completely feathered out by raising the lamp and/or switching to a lower watt bulb.

However, I rarely rely on temperature. Instead, I prefer to judge whether or not poults (and of course, chicks, ducklings, goslings, etc) are warm enough by their behavior. If they’re huddled together, then they’re too cold. If they’re panting and/or as far away from the light as possible, they’re too warm. But if it’s a little of both, then they’re fine. 

poults

As for feeding, poults need a higher protein food than chicks. Most game bird starter feeds have around 28% protein, which is perfect for the first several weeks. After that, some turkey owners switch to a slightly lower protein feed and some don’t.

Be sure to use a shallow waterer – poults have been known to drown in anything too deep. It’s a good idea to place clean marbles or rocks in your waterer. They serve two purposes: 1) To ensure that the poults won’t drown. 2) To attract them to the water, so they’re more likely to drink. Be sure, when putting the poults in their brooder the first time, to show them where their water is by dipping the tips of their beaks in it (being careful not to submerge the nostrils). Food and water should be made available 24/7.

Where can I purchase turkeys?

Most hatcheries have straight run (meaning they’ll be unsexed, so you’ll get a mixture of males and females) poults available during Spring. Usually, you have to order a minimum number of poults to ensure they’ll be able to keep each other warm during shipping. Make sure to include your phone number, so the post office can contact you as soon as they’ve arrived. Anytime I receive shipped birds through the mail, I immediately take them home and put them in their warm brooder. Because shipping can result in weakened chicks/poults, I always have electrolytes or a sugar/water combination for the first couple of days. Poly-vi-sol infant drops (without iron) is another great item for weakened chicks/poults (and for other problems, such as wry neck, curled toes, etc) and something that I always keep on hand.

If you’d rather forgo shipping, you can most likely find turkeys available locally. Chck out the farm and garden section of Craigslist or the bulletin board at your local feed store. Also, most poultry forums (such as, my personal favorite, BYC) have a section where birds can be listed for sale. 

Or, if you’d prefer, you can hatch out your own. Check out my tips on hatching shipped eggs (something I’ve done a lot of).

What about health concerns? 

For the most part, turkeys are fairly hardy, but there are some health problems that you do have to watch out for. 

Blackhead

Also known as Histomoniasis, Blackhead is caused by the micorscopic protozoan, Histomonas Meleagridis, and is particularly dangerous to turkeys and peafowl. Other birds, such as chickens, pheasants, geese, and ducks, due to a resistance to the disease can act as carriers and infect turkeys. Symptoms of the disease include gastric issues, weight loss, yellowish colored droppings, and darkened skin and wattles (hence the name Blackhead). Sick birds often appear dull and depressed and may stand by themselves with drooping trails and ruffled feathers. In instances of Blackhead outbreak in turkeys, the mortality rate can be as high as 80-100%. 

Contact your local farm extension service to find out if Blackhead is known to be a problem in your area. If it is, keeping turkeys separate from other types of birds is recommended. 

Coccidiosis 

Coccidiosis can be a major problem when raising turkeys. Because it is a soil-borne disease, some turkey owners don’t allow their birds to touch the ground until they’re 5-6 months old and even then, putting a fresh layer of sand down for them. Symptoms can include weight loss, lethargy, droopy, ruffled appearance, diarrhea, etc. 

Most starter food in the US is medicated and will help prevent coccidiosis to some degree. However, if you choose to feed unmedicated food or if you’d just like a little extra prevention, apple cider vinegar (the raw, unfiltered kind) added to the water at a rate of 1/2 tablespoon for every quart of water or 1 tablespoon for every gallon is a known preventative regularly used by many bird owners.

Starvation

It’s not uncommon for turkey poults to starve even with food constantly available. Always make sure that you actually see your poults eat. I sometimes place a couple of 1 to 2 week old chicks in the brooder with turkeys for the first week or two to teach them to eat. 

Aspergillosis

A respiratory disease caused by fungus that affects chickens and turkeys. Symptoms can include gasping, rapid breathing, weakness, lethargy, weight loss and loss of appetite, swollen eyelids, etc. The mortality rate is anywhere from 5 to 50%. Good management and proper sanitation is key to the prevention of Aspergillosis. 

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You know you live in the country when . . . .

A turkey on your porch is pretty common. Among other types of farm animals.

Pictured above: Snoody. Or his full proper name (which I’m sure he absolutely loves and probably because it makes him feel so much more important than Jim Bob. And when you’re dealing with Jim Bob, our resident alpha bird, that matters.) Count Von Snoody. 
That’s right, because all of our animals are named. 
Except the guineas. Yeah, they’re a little too fast and a little too doppelgangerish for me to give them names.
And the quail. For the same reasons. 
By the way, Jim Bob, meanwhile, was standing at the bottom of the steps staring up at Snoody. I sort of think Snoody was having an “I’m the King of the World. . . . and you’re not!” moment with him.  
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More On That.

As promised, a little info about what’s going on with our other birds. . . and there’s a lot going on.

You see, when breeding season begins, it really begins. We’re talking springtime in Paris, Valentine’s Day, and lovers’ lane all rolled into one. For the birds, that is. Me, not so much.

Back to the birds.

The turkeys have started laying for the season. A lot.

The Red Golden Pheasant girl has laid two eggs so far. One on Thursday (pictured below) and one today.

Pheasants are something that is completely new to me (we have one pair, Eustace and Esther) and I honestly wasn’t exactly sure what her eggs would look like. Would they be speckled like turkey eggs, tinted like Indian Runners’, pointy, or what have you? And now I know. I learn something new every day 🙂

Of course, here’s proud boy pheasant, Eustace (with Esther in the background – she was patiently waiting for me to quit snapping pictures and leave them in peace so she could sneak back in their house; she’s definitely a bit of a home body).

Anyways, I have a feeling Mr. Boy Pheasant is probably thinking to himself, “Couldn’t she have named me something besides Eustace? I mean, come on, woman!” My reply, “Sorry, boy, but I like it and I’m the resident name-giver.”

The peafowl are not laying, but they are flirting. A lot. And screeching.

The Egyptian Geese, also not laying. They’re a fairly new addition, too, and I’m not sure if I’ve shared a picture of them. So, here they are, Ra and Cleo.

They are also flirting. A lot. In fact, I think Cleo’s giving Ra that over the shoulder come-hither look in the picture above. Huh, maybe she could give me some lessons on that.

No matter, I think this calls for an egg line-up photo op and soon!

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Warning!

Just a word of warning  that I got a new camera for Christmas – a Canon Rebel T3i. Woohoo! You know what that means, don’t you? It means, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks going picture snapping crazy. . . we’re talking hundreds of pictures. You could say that me and the new camera have been joined at the hip. . . um. . . or hand, maybe. And I think I may be finally starting to understand how to use it. Finally. So, expect to see lots of pictures in this post. Some good (hopefully), and some not so good (hopefully not too many of those). One thing you won’t be seeing is goat porn. I’ve taken tons of pictures of the back ends of goats this month, you know, since we have several girls due to kid. But I totally promise, not going to torture you with those. No way.

Based on the daggers that Jim Bob is shooting me in this one, he was completely over being a model. In fact, I can just about hear what he was probably thinking. . . “Go ahead, make my day.”

Unlike Jim Bob, Sammy is always happy to pose for me. You rock, Sammy Boy!! He really is a sweetheart, though. . . definitely more than James Robert. And I could never get tired of his adorable blue eyes. Sammy’s, that is. Not Jim Bob’s. He’d probably peck my eye out, especially if I had a camera in tow.

Remember that I said I’ve been on baby watch with our goats? Well, Sadie No Name delivered our first kids of 2014. Unfortunately, we lost one of the boys the very first night. I hate when that happens, but it’s a part of farm life. A very sad part, but one that is at times unavoidable.

The surviving twin is inside with us, now, and this is what we’ve been doing all week. His name is Dempsey. Isn’t he cute? Both he and his twin were so unbelievably tiny and I’m fairly certain they were a little premature. Right now, Dempsey is snuggled up in his playpen napping. Yeah, I have a goat in a playpen in the house. . . that’s just the way I roll.

This week has been full of ups and downs, and not just with animals. I’m talking temperature wise, too. On Tuesday, it was so cold that our pond was covered in ice from one end to the other. I know that may not seem like a big deal to anyone who experienced those terrible sub-zero temps last week, and I totally agree. It doesn’t compare. But I’ve never seen a frozen pond before! I mean, never. Well, in movies and pictures, but that doesn’t count.

Our second set of twins for the year chose to wait until after the ice had melted and the frigid temperatures were gone to make their debut (two little doelings, too!). Sorry, no pictures yet, but one girl is solid black and the other is a sort of. . . well, I’m not sure what her color is called in goats, but in poodles it would be cafe au lait. Picture the color of coffee with cream. Very pretty.

Clara, by the way, is just glad that it’s warmed up and she doesn’t have to help me break the ice in her water anymore. And of course, that I’m not waking her up three times a night to check on her and the other goats. Now, I’m back down to checking on them once a night.

Meanwhile, Hunter heard that #animalselfies have really taken off and he decided to try out my camera and get in on the action.

And to close this post, a little proof that I’m not a complete gardening serial killer.

An orchid! Can you believe it? I sure can’t.
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Bashful Peas.

The peacocks have been unusually shy this year.

They can be in the midst of displaying with their feathers all spread out beautifully in an attempt to romance the girls, and as soon as they see me coming with my nifty red camera in hand, they close it up and look at me as if to say, “Keep moving, nothing to see here.” In fact, this is only the second decent picture I’ve managed to snap of either of the boys this year.

What’s cool, is that it’s Osiris, the shyest of the boys. . . Score!!! He’s only ever allowed me to take his picture displaying one other time, and that time, he was in the midst of regrowing molted feathers and was, sadly for him, not at his handsomest. That didn’t stop him from showing off to the girls, though. Maybe that’s where peacocks get the reputation for being vain creatures – though I still think Jim Bob the turkey is worse (I swear he could be the inspiration behind “You’re So Vain”).

But the boys aren’t entirely alone. The peahens have, in their own way, been shy this year. Last year, during the breeding season, we found our very first peafowl egg of the year on April 2nd (I only know that because I blogged about it here. . . thank God for this blog to keep me on track lol) and by May 15th, we’d had our first peachicks to hatch. This year, they’re completely behind and still haven’t laid the first egg 🙁 They’re not alone, either, as the guineas and some of the geese have been tardy with their egg laying, too. I guess it’s just going to be one of those years.

Luckily, the turkeys are more than making up for them. On Monday, I set 17 eggs from our Royal Palms in the incubator! So, sometime around May 20th we should have our very first hatch of Royal Palm babies 🙂