One life: Turkeys

25 November 2020

Turkeys are sensitive, aware, and playful animals capable of a whole spectrum of emotions, and it is only when you allow yourself the time to get to know them that their true characteristics shine through. 

Devoted mums

Turkeys care for their babies, mums provide their chicks with shelter from the wind and rain, they teach them how to find food and they will vigorously defend them from predators such as raccoons, foxes and hawks. If the chicks become accidentally separated from their mother they will emit loud peeping noises to which the mother responds by running up to her youngsters with loud yelling sounds.

A mother turkey will build a safe nest in the long grass or under a bush to protect and care for her young, here she will stay at night to protect her babies until they are old enough to fly when she will take them into the safety of the trees to roost.

Social networking

Turkeys develop strong friendships with other turkeys and choose to spend time with close friends, eating together, preening together and sleeping together. 

At night they take to the trees to sleep safely and in the morning they fly to the ground as the sun rises and call to their flock to let them know where they are allowing them to reunite.

Turkeys establish both male and female pecking orders within the flock. Female hierarchies tend to be fairly stable, but males are forever scrabbling to move higher on the hierarchical ladder.


Turkeys vocalise important information, communicating their needs and their emotional states to others, and communicating with meaning that others can understand.

Their numerous vocalizations include  "gobbles," "clucks," "putts," "purrs," "yelps," "cutts," "whines," "cackles," and "kee-kees."

Vocalisations are an important part of social living, conveying specific information to others within their social group. These include vocalisations to let others know if they have spotted an aerial predator or a ground predator, and calls to let each other know where they are or to call the flock back together. 

This is particularly important for mothers and their chicks. The relationship between the mother and her youngsters develops through such vocal and visual signals and is important for the normal social development of the youngsters, as these communications facilitate the learning of social activities, and helps them to stay safe when mum sees danger

The gobble that the male turkey uses in early spring is a vocalisation used to announce his presence to females and competing males. In response a hen will yelp thus informing the male of her location. 

Like to dance

Turkeys also communicate by the use of visual signs, such as the mating display of the male. They puff up their body feathers, flare their tails into a vertical fan, and strut slowly while giving a characteristic gobbling call.

The males can be heard for up to a mile away, and they convey their aggression towards rival males by the fanning of their tail feathers. Males also emit a low-pitched drumming sound and often yelp in the manner of females.


Turkeys are all individuals each with their own personalities, this is demonstrated in the ‘Tale of Two Turkeys’ the story of Mila and Priscilla, two turkey hens who lived with Karen Davies from United Poultry Concerns and her husband in Darnestown, Maryland.

Mila and Priscilla were rescued following a truck accident. Mila was a gentle and pacific turkey with a watchful face. Priscilla was a moody bird with emotional burdens.

In the spring and summer, Priscilla would disappear into the woods where she laid many clutches of eggs that, since there was no male turkey to fertilize them, never hatched. Priscilla kept trying to be a mother, and perhaps because she could not, she was irritable much of the time.

When Priscilla got into one of her angry moods, she would get ready to charge, with her head pulsing colors, she glared at her victim. What stopped her was Mila. Perking up her head at the signals, Mila would enter directly into the path, and block Priscilla’s charge. She would tread back and forth in front of Priscilla, uttering soft pleading yelps as if beseeching her to stop. Priscilla would gradually calm down submitting to the peacemaker’s inhibiting signals. 

Like to be clean

Turkeys really enjoy dust bathing to clean their feathers. They fluff up their feathers and kick soil into them, then they shake off the soil. This helps them to dislodge and so get rid of any insects on their skin.

Enjoy speed

Wild turkeys are able to fly at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and run at speeds of 25 miles per hour over short distances

Have personal preferences

Erik Marcus, the author of Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, has spent a considerable amount of time with turkeys on farm sanctuaries. He states that ‘Turkeys remember your face and they will sit closer to you with each day you revisit. Come back day after day and, before long, a few birds will pick you out as their favorite and they will come running up to you whenever you arrive. It’s definitely a matter of the birds choosing you rather than of you choosing the birds. Different birds choose different people.”

Farmed turkey welfare

Over 650 million turkeys a year are farmed for meat production, globally. Of these, over 240 million are in the US and over 240 million in Europe.

In the EU, over 90% of turkeys are kept in intensive indoor systems. Turkey chicks undergo a series of painful mutilations including beak-trimming, toe clipping and removal of the skin on the forehead known as the ‘snood’. These procedures are carried out without anaesthetic.

Demand for larger birds with a higher amount of breast meat has meant that the modern day turkey is now very heavy with much more developed breast muscles. Through selective breeding for faster growth, a commercial turkey can reach as much as 25kg in just 20 weeks. The average weight of a wild turkey is just 7.5kg. This fast growth rate leads to the potential for heart failure, lameness, leg deformities and hip degeneration.

Due to the unnatural size of the male birds it has become difficult for the male to be able to mate with the female naturally, therefore the majority of breeding takes place through artificial insemination. This process has been described as brutal with workers inseminating one hen every 12 seconds.

Wildlife conservation success story

The wild turkey was almost hunted to extinction in the 1900s, the population was as low as 30,000 birds. But conservation of their North America habitat has brought populations back from the brink with over 7 million today.

Turkeys really are amazing animals

Read more:

In the season of goodwill, let’s extend our compassion to animals

Jill’s blog: A Munchkin Mary Christmas from our bears in Vietnam