Temperament: easily tamed, noisy males
Cost: from $25 – $50
Lifespan: 5-9 years
Recommended for:hobby and commercial farmers
The turkey is most often associated with once-yearly feasts with friends and family; either on Christmas day or Thanksgiving in the United States. However, history suggests it was far more popular in the past and Native Americans were probably eating turkey long before Europeans came to the New World. Evidence suggests that all domestic turkeys evolved from a single breed of wild turkey, Meleagris gallopavo. It is believed that the Aztec Indians of Mexico first domesticated the turkey and in the fifteenth century Spanish explorers brought the birds back to Europe. Breeders often keep turkeys for showing and for eating. Quite often, show birds will end up on the kitchen table once they have done their duty on the show table.
Males are called toms or gobblers, females are hens and babies are called poults. The male carries a large skin flap down its neck called a ‘wattle’ whilst below that are small, wart-like structures called the ‘caruncle’. These reflect the bird’s mood; turning bright red to attract females and pale blue to cream when he’s not in the mood. The conical flap of skin above the beak is called a ‘snood’. This is an organ used to attract females during mating rituals. It will become elongated and distend when the gobbler is aroused and will contract at other times. The lump on the turkey’s chest is a ‘beard’ made up of vestigial hair, a secondary sexual characteristic left over from evolution. Two or three beards may occur. Even females have been known to develop beards.
Some of the varieties that occur in Australia include; Bronze wing: closest in colour to the wild turkey. The world’s most common turkey because of its hardiness, leg strength, natural mating ability, foraging skills, placid temperament and plumage that blends with the ground. This is a large turkey, weighing around 13kg for a mature gobbler and 8kg for a hen. Body plumage is black overlaid with a metallic sheen while feathers on the neck and upper breast are tipped with iridescent red-green. Slate: A eye catching turkey developed from the bronze. Usually not regarded as more than an exhibition bird, it is bred more for its colour, a dark blue/grey colour. Bourbon Red: A rich mahogany red with black bars, white wings and a white tail with a brown bar. White: Bred specifically for large commercial production for the table. The white plumage means less skin taint than is evident with birds with darkened quills.
Turkeys tame easily and are gentle when handled, however they do have strong claws and need to be handled firmly but gently. Stags will start to display plumage and gobble from around 10-16 weeks. Male birds will fight if put together.
Health and lifespan
Turkey’s are susceptible to a disease called ‘blackhead’. This is a parasite, a protozoa called Histomoniasis, which is carried in certain earthworms and snails which may be ingested by the bird. Blackhead can damage the liver and intestine and can be passed between other breeds of fowl such as chickens. Symptoms include general loss of condition, drowsy appearance, ruffled feathers and diarrhoea. The caruncles of the turkey may become dark or purple. To prevent the disease, breeders have recommended adding crushed garlic to the birds’ water. This is unproven. Commercial preparations to treat and prevent the disease are also available from veterinarians. Dead birds and their droppings should be burned. Should an incidence of blackhead occur, contact your local veterinarian for advice on medication suitable for blackhead control. Turkeys live between seven and nine years.
Large birds with large appetites. A diet of mixed grain, layer pellets and wet mash is ideal. Shell grit should always be available. Specialised, commercial turkey pellets are also available in most areas. Turkeys will also graze more than chickens and will search out clovers, thistles and small insects. Whereas commercial feeds were once supplemented with medications for the control of blackhead, government legislation now prohibits the inclusion of these medications.
Not recommended for beginners, turkeys are seasonal layers, laying batches of eggs twice yearly. The male bird’s ‘spurs’ can damage the hen when he mounts her and a specialised device called a ‘saddle’ is often used by turkey breeders. Hens lay between 50-100 eggs a year (around 25-50 per season). Modern commercial gobblers cannot breed. Their wide chests and short, widely spread legs for which they have been selected prevent them from mounting hens.
Turkeys cost about $25-$50 each. Males and better quality birds may be more expensive.
These birds love to wander and usually won’t destroy the garden. However it is best to protect seedlings and other small plants. Like all poultry, housing is essential at night to keep out poor weather and predators. A well ventilated shed will suffice. Birds can fly when young but are usually too large to get far off the ground when mature. Breeders recommend clipping the flight feathers of one wing to keep birds within the grounds. This is best done by those with prior experience.
Apart from making a fantastic table bird. Turkey eggs are also widely recommended by breeders. The birds are also actually very good at control of insects such as grasshoppers and caterpillars and weeds such as thistles.
Not a bird for everyone. They are really best for rural and semi rural lots. Males can be too noisy for suburban yards. Turkeys need space to forage and graze and are best for hobby farmers or rural properties. Poultry breeders suggest that turkeys should not be kept with chickens due to the incidence and possible transmission of blackhead.
We filmed this story in Berkshire Park, Sydney with Ruby and Ron Waldron. Ruby has bred turkeys from many years, specifically as a meat bird. Ruby can be contacted on (02) 4572 5283.
Turkeys are mainly raised on large commercial properties specifically for eating. If you are interested in raising turkeys, contact your local agricultural society for a list of smaller scale breeders in your area who may be able to supply some birds.
Mr Daryl Deutscher from Dadswell Bridge, near Stawell Victoria breeds many colour varieties of Turkeys. He can be contacted on (03) 5359 5220.