If you’ve kept turkeys, you likely have a strong opinion about them one way or another. Depending on the kind and quality of turkeys you kept, you may have read this post title and laughed out loud.
It’s true that turkeys come in a wide array of dispositions. From “too dumb to keep itself alive” to “too smart to corner or catch”, turkeys can be inexplicably stupid, inappropriately violent, unreasonably skittish, or valuable beyond measure.
Over the last many years I’ve had a bad streak with my turkey genetics. Each new set of genes I’ve tried to bring in has been a failure. Jaw-droppingly dumb birds, violent killers, and even turkeys so afraid of rain or snow they’d rather hide in a dry corner somewhere and starve than get their feet wet. No self preservation instincts what so ever!
2 years ago I had a black spanish hen who sat on her perch and chirped quietly, in a soft turkey whisper, as a bobcat walked across the perch towards her; “Psssst- hey ya’ll. Hey. I know you’re sleeping, sorry, but- but- there’s something here. It’s getting closer. Hey. I think it’s a predator. Hey-” She didn’t get to whisper any further because the bobcat chomped her neck and killed her right there on the perch. That was a new level of turkey stupidity I’d never seen. Any other heritage breed turkey would have at least flown away or made a decent bit of noise, instead of presenting its neck to a large predator and dying silently. And I know precisely what happened because I woke up to her whispers and by the time I got to the barnyard the bobcat was dragging her away.
But now I may have finally had a break in my bad luck! I’ve landed a few new birds that have excellently varied genes, and though it’s only been a few months and we’re not even into egg season yet, they’ve already shown their value as flock protectors. I have a hawk lounging around my barnyard. I know it’s here eyeballing my free-range guinea pigs, but there’s also nothing stopping it from taking a small hen or a bantam bird if it so fancies. That is, if it weren’t for the new turkeys.
In my flock of 7 turkeys (in need of culling down to the best 3-4 individuals) there are 2 hens and a young jake who are in no mood to put up with predation. Any time this hawk visits the barnyard, these three turkeys chatter and gobble a warning to everyone. The chickens scramble and dash for cover with the other turkey hens.The guinea pigs disappear. The other 2 turkey toms continue to strut and purr like nothing is happening. But these 3 turkeys march out into the open, or to the base of whatever tree the hawk is in, and puff themselves up for battle. They cackle and call at the hawk, jumping and flapping and dashing around, boiling their blood for a fight. The hawk is weary and usually moves on after a minute or two of turkey death threats.
This is one of the key traits I’ve been hunting for for many years now.
I got my first breeding trio of turkeys back in 2013. I raised them from day-old poults. They were absolute gems and I’ve been hunting for turkey genetics that could rival their glory ever since. My first tom, Pip, was royalty. He was the gentle lord of the barnyard. If any roosters took to being violent, Pip would end their episode quickly by slapping them upside the head with a powerful wing, sending them tumbling backward. Pip was so quiet and reliable, that if I heard him gobble in the night, I came running with the .22. He was all about business, no nonsense. Several skunks met their fate in the wee hours of the morning because Pip ratted them out.
So one day, a hawk swooped down into the chicken yard. A hapless black Japanee bantam hen spun in circles screaming, unsure of where to go or what to do as the hawk descended upon her. Pip, one of the turkey hens (Jade), and my black copper marans rooster (Gallus) jumped into action. The hawk was quickly cornered and pinned against the fence. I watched the commotion, which probably lasted less than a minute, from the kitchen window. Every few seconds the hawk would emerge from the mass of cackling feathers and claw its way up the fence to escape. But Gallus would lunge upward, or the long neck of a turkey would rise up and pull it back into the fray. The screams of the hawk were jarring. I watched motionless, completely engrossed by the drama. Eventually the hawk managed to scramble up the fence wire and launch itself away from the chicken yard. Feathers tumbled in all directions. Jade, Pip, and Gallus beat themselves against the fence furiously but could not bring the hawk back down.
The entire flock had remained huddled under cover, frozen and fascinated as I had been. Some cackled and made noise, others stayed silent. Now that the hawk was gone, Pip declared that the battle was over with a triumphant gobble and went back to strutting. The bantam hen, who had escaped to hide in the chicken coop, came out from hiding. Slowly the flock returned to its business.
I have since been a devout lover of (good) turkeys in my barnyard. A calm, confident, observant turkey will alert the entire barnyard, as well as you, of any unknown or unwelcome intruder- human or animal. A good turkey will size up the situation and only attack if appropriate (i.e. won’t attack a human or dog, but will destroy a hawk or skunk). Keeping smart, diligent turkeys in my flock, combined with mingling my dogs with the birds, is primarily why I’ve had precious little predation issues in 10+ years of keeping poultry. Skunks, magpies, and ravens have been my worst offenders, usually taking chicks and eggs. Wild cats have been second in line. I’ve been surprised to learn that they, of all predators, seem to care the least about domestic dogs. But my bad streak with wild cats was also a time when I had no good turkeys in the flock to raise the alarm!
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And even as I type this, one of the new hens sounded the alarm. Now, when you spend enough time with the individuals, you learn to read their calls. Her alarm was simply cautionary. It did not announce an emergency. Something she didn’t like was approaching in the distance. I perked up and listened. Then, right on cue, Toli the Dog let out a warning grumble and took off. I stuck my head outside and saw a large bird of prey lighting into a tree about 100 feet away. Toli was marching towards it, tail raised like a battle flag, woofing some passive threats. The turkeys shepherded the chickens back into the thicket near the barn. Another wanna-be chicken-eater thwarted again!
So I wanted to give some credit to my new barnyard peeps, who have already saved the lives of many of my animals. And as always, I highly, highly recommend giving turkeys a chance. If you get some useless or dumb genetics, try again. Go for good heritage breeds or crosses. Try different birds from different breeders until you find the turkey that’s right for you!