It’s been five months since the sweetest little turkey ever, Pumpkin Pie, came into my life. She is by far the friendliest turkey that I’ve ever had, and I look forward to seeing her every morning when I make the first rounds of the day and every night at tuck-in. I raised her in the house for about a week after she hatched because she was too weak to stand and was rejected by her momma, you can read that post here (Pumpkin Pie). After she rejoined the flock, she remained imprinted on me, and to this day she still runs up to me when I go out to the turkey yard. For her first couple of months, Pumpkin Pie was a bit of a runt, and I thought that she would remain a runt due to her slow start in life. But gradually she started catching up to her sisters in size, so I put a little white leg band on her so that I could easily identify her at a glance, and I’m glad I did because she is now as big as her sisters. I don’t know why, but turkeys of the same breed look almost identical to each other, whereas our chickens of the same breed all have distinguishing features. With chickens of the same breed, either the tips of their feathers are slightly different colors, or they’ll have a different pattern for multi-colored feathers, or their combs will be different sizes, but with the turkeys even I have trouble telling them apart at times. So I’ve banded a few of my favorites, including Prudence, Spaceship Turkey Momma, and now Pumpkin Pie. Ringo and Eleanor were also banded at one time, but they are talented leg band removers and now I have to confess that I can only tell who Eleanor is when she’s barking a greeting at me, of which she is quite fond of doing, but I digress.
Turkeys are very inquisitive by nature, and Pumpkin Pie is especially so. She follows me around as I do chores, sticking her face in my business and making adorable little sing-song noises and chortles all the while as if to say, watcha doin’ there? If I have ties or anything dangling on my clothing she’ll tug on it repeatedly. Anything shiny like jewelry or protruding like buttons will get repeated pecks. If I have a tool or something in my hands, she’ll peck at it trying to figure out what on earth this fascinating item could possibly be. We have lap time often, and although she’s getting big, she still manages to fit after awkwardly finding a place to settle her big feet. Ringo, my tom turkey, is quite jealous of Pumpkin Pie, and he is always hovering nearby looking sideways at me from his big eyes in that wrinkly blue head.
Pumpkin Pie is still a low turkey in the pecking order, as are all of the younger generation compared to the females from last year’s hatch and Prudence and Eleanor the flock matriarchs. At evening tuck-in sometimes Pumpkin Pie will be roosting on something lower in the turkey yard than the six foot tall roost that the older turkeys roost on. If she’s not on the high roost I will pick her up and put her up there so she won’t be as vulnerable to predator attack if one should come into the turkey yard at night. For a couple of months this summer we had repeated night-time attacks in the turkey yard, by what I believe to be a larger member of the weasel family, and each time it was the smaller chickens (of which we lost two) that would sleep outside with the turkeys that were attacked. After each attack I worried that Pumpkin Pie would be next due to her being the smallest turkey in the flock, but I worry less about her now that she is larger in size. We have tried, and are still actively trying to trap the predator, but with no luck. So every morning when I go out to the turkey yard I can’t help myself from doing a quick head count – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and Ringo makes ten. Once that is done I breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy a few minutes with Pumpkin Pie and the rest of these amazing birds.
We have three turkey mommas at the farm this year, and they all have interesting stories. Two of the turkey mommas are co-raising nine turkey poults and two chicken chicks, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in My Two Moms. But this is the story of the third turkey momma, who decided to go broody at right about the same time as Eleanor and her daughter, June, went broody in the small chicken coop. Only this turkey, who is now known as Spaceship Turkey Momma, decided to go broody in the stainless steel dishwasher tub in the front pasture that I call the spaceship. A couple of the turkeys had decided to start laying their eggs in the spaceship this spring, and it was not unusual to see one or even two turkeys in the spaceship at the same time. After a few weeks of frequent turkey sightings in the spaceship, I realized that we had a third broody turkey on our hands. I debated about whether I should give her eggs to hatch, and if so how many, and should I give her turkey or chicken eggs to hatch. I had already decided that Eleanor and June would be the ones to raise the new batch of turkeys for the year, since they had the good foresight to go broody in a coop which would be a suitable and safe environment to raise the babies in. The dishwasher tub, however, is small and crowded and not a very safe or suitable location for raising babies. There was not much room for a family to grow in, and at night it could not be locked securely to keep predators out if they should happen to get in through the electric fence. But this turkey seemed very committed to her broodiness, and the quickest way to get a broody turkey or chicken over their broodiness is to give in and let them raise some babies. She had already been broody for quite some time by now, so rather than give her eggs to hatch which would take either three weeks for chicken eggs, or four weeks for turkey eggs, I decided to buy some chicken chicks at the feed store and slip them under her at night. I had done this successfully with our bossy alpha chicken, Raquel, several years ago (Raquel, Reinvented), and I was hoping this strategy would work again.
I bought three Light Brahma chicks, which are a large breed chicken that I thought would be a nice addition to our mixed chicken and turkey flock. I waited until after dark, and I went out to sneak them under the broody turkey. The thing about broody hens is, they are known for getting a bit of a mean streak, and they will peck anything that gets within beak’s reach with a surprising amount of force. I picked up the first chick and quickly put it under her, although not before she pecked my hand and wrist several times. I realized that I needed to get the other two chicks under her and get out of there quick, before she got too upset and ended up pecking the chicks instead of me. So I picked up the other two chicks in one hand, and I put my other hand in easy pecking distance of her as a sacrifice to allow me to slip the other two chicks under her while she was vigorously pecking my other hand. I left quickly, and I crossed my fingers for a happy outcome. It is not unheard of for chicks to be killed by a momma hen when attempting this, or even when the chicks are hatched from eggs by the momma. The next morning I awoke early and rushed down to check on her. I was thrilled to see her transformed from the hissing, pecking broody turkey of the night before to a proud momma, purring contentedly with the happy sounds of a momma hen talking to her little ones. I could not see the chicks because they were tucked safely under her, but I knew from the sounds she was making that my plan was a success!
For the next four weeks, spaceship turkey momma raised her chicks very devotedly, keeping them in the outskirts of the pasture or hidden in the grass, safe from the other chickens and turkeys and in particular away from the other two turkey mommas who were very protective of their mixed brood of eleven little ones. Early on in her foray into motherhood, one of the chicks passed away in the night. It’s always hard to lose them at this young age, and you usually don’t know what the cause was, but it happens. For four weeks, spaceship turkey momma and her babies slept in the spaceship at night, until one night the momma decided it was time for her to rejoin her turkey flock. I heard loud peeping one night from her two chicken chicks, and I looked outside to see her perched on the six foot high roost while her babies screeched at her quite pathetically from the ground below wondering why their momma was way up there and not in the spaceship getting ready for bed. I confess to being a bit of a meddler in the affairs of my chickens and turkeys. I just can’t help myself when I see someone is unhappy, so I try to fix the problem, with varying degrees of success. On this night and for the next several nights when I heard the chicks peeping loudly, I went down to the pasture and gave spaceship turkey momma a few pokes in the chest until she stood up, heard the plaintive calls of her babies, and flew off the roost and went back to the spaceship for the night. Then one night when I did this, instead of flying down to be with her babies, she gave me a stern look and hissed at me as if to say not tonight, I’m staying on the roost. Which she did that night and has every night since then. Her chicks are very different in terms of their flying skills than the two chicken chicks raised by the other two turkey mommas. The chicken chicks raised by Eleanor and June have no trouble flying up to the roost at night to sleep with their turkey family. The chicks raised by spaceship turkey momma do not seem to have gone to flight school, and they remain firmly planted on the ground the majority of the time. The spaceship turkey chicks continue their pathetic calls for their momma at night, and now my nightly ritual is that I wait until the chicks are setting down for the night in the spaceship, and I pick them up and place them on the roost in the small coop which is currently unoccupied. During the day, the chicks still hang out with their momma, and they are getting a bit braver and are spending more time in closer proximity to the rest of the flock. When they get larger, I am hoping that they become part of the chicken flock and will learn to go into the larger coop at night with the rest of the chickens. Oh and if you’re wondering about names for the spaceship turkey chicks, thanks for all of the great space-themed name options that my Instagram friends have suggested! I’ve decided on Sputnick and Stardust for the chicks and Starbuck for the momma. To keep up on daily farm happenings and photos, follow me on Instagram @5rfarmoregon.
Our momma turkeys hatched their poults a month ago, and all of them were doing well except for one little turkey that came to be known as Pumpkin Pie. We had a camera set up inside the coop that live streamed to our TV so that we could observe the two turkey mommas and the poults and make sure that all was well without disturbing them too much. Right away I noticed that momma Eleanor would get up and move to another area of the coop, and all of the poults would follow except for one that would be left lying on its back waving its feet in the air frantically trying to right itself and not being able to. I went out to the coop a couple of times that first day to pick up the poult and stick it back under the momma, and hoped that after a good nights rest all would be well. The next day I noticed that the same thing was happening, so I brought it into the house and set up a small temporary indoor brooder with a heat lamp for the poult. I had read that sometimes newly hatched chicks had problems such as this which could be caused by not getting enough nutrition during development in the egg. So I decided to keep this poult inside, give it vitamins in its water and make sure that it was getting enough to eat, and hoped that after a few days of good nutrition, it would stop having this problem and be able rejoin the flock.
Turkey poults need to be kept in a very warm environment, approximately 100 degrees, for their first week after hatch. Within an hour or so of getting the poult set up in its indoor brooder with a heat lamp and a stuffed animal for company and feeling like everything was under control, a big wind storm blew in and knocked out our power! I quickly lit a fire in the wood stove and moved the brooder right in front of the stove. We spent a couple of hours hanging out by the wood stove, and by that time I was already becoming quite attached to this little one. Thankfully the power came back on later in the day, and we settled into a routine. Throughout the day I would check on the poult, and I would tap my finger in its food and water dishes, encouraging the poult to peck at them as a means of making sure that it was getting enough to eat and drink, since it didn’t have a turkey momma to show it the ropes. Whenever I wasn’t with the poult and I would hear a loud peeping, I would run to check on it. Occasionally I would find it on its back, although mostly it would be just fine, standing on top of its stuffed animal companion and peeping happily as if to announce its climbing achievement. In the evenings we would sit on the sofa together, and after a few days when it seemed to be doing well and I was no longer worried that it wouldn’t survive, I decided to name it Pumpkin Pie and let myself love her. I would get up several times during the night whenever I would hear loud peeping. Usually everything was just fine, I think she just wanted a bit of company. After the second night of loud peeping, Sean set up a metronome at night, which seemed to provide some soothing companionship. That’s when I knew that little Pumpkin Pie had worked her way into Sean’s heart too.
After about five nights in the house, Pumpkin Pie was eating and drinking well and was very energetic. I wanted her to be able to rejoin the flock, so I didn’t dare keep her inside any longer for fear that she would be rejected if I kept her inside too long. The morning I went to reintroduce Pumpkin Pie to the flock I carried her out to the coop in the pocket of my jacket. I opened up the coop door to find the mommas and the other eight poults and two chicken chicks all running around eating and doing what turkeys do, so I quickly put the poult into the coop with the others and no one seemed the wiser that there was a new poult in their midst. The reintroduction seemed to have gone perfectly, and I went back inside the house hoping that little Pumpkin Pie would remember me now that she had her turkey family back. I was pleasantly surprised to find that every time I would go out to the turkey yard to fill feeders or waterers and check on the little ones, that Pumpkin Pie would come running up to me. I would kneel down and lay my hand open on the ground, and she would sit down in my hand and let me pick her up. She is now a month old, and is still running up to me whenever I go out to visit the turkeys. The other poults will also come over to me to see if I have treats, but they will quickly lose interest in me if there are no treats to be had. Little Pumpkin Pie, however, is content to sit with me for as long as I like, no strings attached. It seems that after two years of having turkeys, I finally have the lap turkey I’ve always wanted, and I couldn’t be happier.
We have turkey babies at the farm! Eleanor, who raised turkey chicks, known as poults, for us last spring is raising another batch for us this year. The twist this year is that she is raising them jointly with one of her daughters that she raised last year. Eleanor and her daughter, we’re calling her June for now, both decided to go broody at the same time in the small chicken coop where Eleanor raised babies last year. After I was sure they were committed to the task, I gave Eleanor and June 12 turkey eggs. I also decided to try something new and give them some chicken eggs as well. I know a few people who have had turkeys raise chicken chicks successfully, and I thought it would be fun so see them all grow up together. Turkey eggs need to be incubated for 28 days, and chicken eggs need to be incubated for 21 days, so I added 8 chicken eggs under the turkeys 7 days into their incubation. Eleanor and June devotedly sat on the eggs for 28 days, rotating the eggs back and forth between themselves. Eleanor, as the experienced momma, kept most of the eggs underneath her, but I noticed on warmer days the eggs would be split more equally between them. We had a good hatch of the turkey eggs – 10 out of 12, but only 2 out of 8 chicken eggs hatched. Perhaps it had to do with adding the chicken eggs after the mommas had already been incubating the turkey eggs for 7 days, or maybe its because the chicken eggs looked different compared to the turkey eggs, either way I’m pleased that two of the chicken eggs hatched, and it will be fun to see them grow up with the turkeys.
We set up a camera inside the coop that live streams to our TV so that we can observe the turkey mommas with the babies and make sure everything is going well. The mommas tend to be very protective of their poults, and the poults are also very wary of anything that’s not their momma. The first few days after the poults hatched, whenever I would open up the coop door the mommas would call the babies and they would all run and hide under the mommas. Having the camera set up so that we can watch them without disturbing them allows us to see all kinds of things that we would probably never see otherwise. We did have a couple of things go wrong this year, both of which we saw on the camera. One of the chicks that hatched was weak, and it kept falling over on its back and couldn’t get back up. The mommas wanted nothing to do with this little one and would move away from it rather than sitting on it to keep it warm. I brought this poult into the house for some TLC, and I’ll post the happy ending to little Pumpkin Pie’s story in my next blog. We also had one poult die in an unfortunate accident. I found the poult after it was already dead so there was nothing I could do, and while it was very sad, it was helpful to rewind the footage on the camera to be able to know exactly what happened instead of it being a mystery.
About a week after the poults hatched, they were ready to go outside and start exploring. Both of the mommas escort the poults around the pasture. The mommas are very protective, and they make alarm calls over practically every bird that flies by, whether it be a harmless robin or mourning dove, or an actual threat such as a hawk, or many times something that their keen eyes see in the distance or in the fir trees but that I do not see. The mommas and poults are in their own fenced area, separated from the rest of the turkeys and chickens, so that the poults can eat the special high protein feed that they need and also for their protection from being pecked by the other chickens and turkeys that they will one day share the pasture with. I’ve begun treat training with the poults to hopefully get them to be a bit less skittish around me. They are so fun to watch grow up, they are two weeks old now and are already taking their first dust baths and practicing their perching skills.
Spring is the time for chicks at the feed store and all manner of cute baby animals on the Instagram pages of my farm friends. I have been telling myself to stay strong and resist the temptation of baby chicks, that we don’t really need any more chickens at the farm. But need is a relative term, and I’m happy to say that the countdown to cuteness has begun here at the farm! Three of our five turkey hens have gone broody, meaning that they are ready to set and hatch eggs. Last year Eleanor did a great job hatching and raising eight turkeys for us in the spring, and then she went broody again in the fall although we didn’t let her hatch that late in the season. I had a feeling that she would go broody again this spring, and sure enough she did. Even better than that is that one of her daughters also went broody at the same time, and they are camped out together in the small coop in the turkey yard. I gave them a dozen turkey eggs to hatch ten days ago. Eleanor and her daughter are so adorable, sitting side by side and sharing the egg incubation duties.
A third turkey, another one of Eleanor’s daughters, decided to go broody a few days ago in the repurposed dishwasher tub that I like to call the turkey spaceship. I debated about whether to give her some eggs as well, because the quickest way to get a broody girl over her broodiness is to just give in and give her what she wants! I thought about giving this third turkey some chicken eggs to hatch, since none of our chickens seem interested in going broody. But the spaceship is really not all that spacious, and I thought it would be better if all of the turkey poults and chicken chicks were hatched in the same location so that they were already integrated together and I wouldn’t have to relocate the chicks and momma to more suitable location for raising chicks. So I decided to put eight chicken eggs in the coop and see if the turkeys would accept them and sure enough they did. Turkey eggs take 28 days to hatch, and chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch. I put the chicken eggs in after they turkeys had already been setting on the turkey eggs for a week, so all of the eggs should hatch at approximately the same time. I know several people who have had turkeys raise chickens and vice versa, and I’ve been told that after the little ones grow up and reach the age where they leave the care of their momma, they just naturally know to join the rest of the flock of their species. I am really looking forward to seeing how this all works out – two momma turkeys raising a mixed flock of turkey poults and chicken chicks. This should be interesting!
We’ve come full circle with our adventures in turkey raising this year, and what a ride it’s been! On May 25th, Eleanor hatched eight adorable babies. I watched anxiously as they grew up from fragile hatchlings, to young poults (First Day Out), to adventurous Turkey Teens. Eleanor was an attentive and very capable mother, and Aunt Prudence also pitched in to care for the youngsters, frequently letting them snuggle under her large wings on the roost at bedtime. Although I spent time with Eleanor’s little ones every day, socializing them, and feeding them treats out of my hand, they are still a bit on the wild side. For the most part they will come when called with a “turk, turk”, especially if they see that I have treats in hand, but there is no lap time to be had with this bunch. But that’s okay because they are such beautiful birds and have such interesting behaviors and calls that I am more than happy to observe them from a short distance away. Our two-year old tom turkey Ringo, who is quite a jerk to my husband, let’s me walk right up to him and stroke his lovely feathers, whereas none of the other turkeys will allow me to do that. So as long as Ringo behaves himself with me, and continues to do his job by contributing his good genetics to future generations and fulfilling his duty as flock protector, Ringo has been granted a pardon from the usual fate of a turkey at Thanksgiving time.
There was plenty of excitement as Eleanor’s poults were growing up including many instances of the turkeys flying over the electric fence that surrounds their pasture, and for quite a long time this summer I was hesitant to be away from the farm at dusk when the turkeys settle in on their roost for the night for fear that one or more of the turkeys would have accidentally flown over the fence and would have to spend the night outside of the safety of their fenced pasture and risk getting eaten by a predator. On one morning I awoke to Eleanor’s loud barking lost call, and as I walked down to the pasture I could see that five of her youngsters were missing from the pasture. I could hear her poults calling back to Eleanor from a distance and from several directions, including one of the young girls who was about 40 feet up in a tree! After an hour or so, everyone was reunited with their mom, thanks to repeated calling by both Eleanor and I, the power of treats, and a strong flock instinct. There was another time that I walked down to the pasture, and I saw two of the young girls, roosting about 30 feet high in one of our neighbor’s fir trees. Luckily, I had treats already in hand, and with a couple calls of “Here, turk, turk” and a shaking of the treat cup, they both soared down majestically from the tree into the pasture.
Eleanor’s poults grew up to be five boys and three girls. I sold two of the boys when they were three months old to a couple of small farms that needed a tom turkey for their flocks, and I hope that our boys are out there doing their job of carrying on the genetics of the heritage breed Narragansett turkey. We kept three of Eleanor’s boys along with her three girls until they were six months old, and they lived fairly peacefully alongside Ringo, Eleanor, and Prudence. But as Thanksgiving drew near, the young toms were displaying and challenging each other for dominance more frequently, and these challenges were turning into fighting matches more often too. No serious injuries had occurred yet, but I knew based on our experience raising our first four toms last year that it was just a matter of time before the fighting turned increasingly violent. If our turkeys were living in the wild, this would be the time that the males would disperse and go off to claim their own territories. We just do not have enough space here to keep four mature tom turkeys in separate living areas so it was time for our boys to fulfill their destiny which had been predetermined from the day we decided to let Eleanor hatch eggs.
Initially I had planned to take the toms to the poultry processing facility that is located about 50 miles from us, but as the day drew near, I began to rethink that decision. Our turkeys had lived every day of their lives as nature had intended, with the freedom to engage in all of their natural behaviors, living with green grass under their feet, enjoying the fresh air and sun above, and able to forage and explore to their heart’s content. Even though these turkeys were not really pets in the same way that many of our chickens are, I had cared for these turkeys for six months and done everything possible to give them the best life they could have. It was only right that on their last day, which would be the one bad day of their lives, that they were treated as respectfully and humanely as possible, and that meant doing the job ourselves. There have been a few people who have responded negatively to my posts on social media about harvesting our turkeys for Thanksgiving, saying that it’s awful that I killed my turkeys or that they are disappointed in my decision. I don’t expect everyone to understand my decision to do this, but it was precisely because I cared so much for our turkeys that I made the decision that I did.
This is only the second time that we have harvested our own birds for the table, the first time being a few years ago when we ended up with too many roosters (Coq au Vin). We used the same process this year for the turkeys, although this time we had better tools and a better setup and the whole process went very smoothly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do, it was a difficult day to be sure, starting with the moment that I woke up that morning with a knot in my chest knowing what the day held. But knowing that the turkey that we would be eating was raised with kindness in a healthy and sustainable way made it all worthwhile, and it was the tastiest turkey we’ve ever had. It is hard work and not necessarily profitable to raise chickens and turkeys for eggs or meat in a small farm setting, raising them in a humane and healthy way on pasture and being fed organic non-GMO feed. I don’t raise the chickens and turkeys to make money, we don’t even cover expenses with egg sales and the occasional sale of birds. I do it because I enjoy the experience of caring for them, and it feels good to be doing our small part to provide an alternative to the confined animal feeding operations that provide the majority of eggs and turkeys to consumers.
We still have Eleanor’s three daughters, and they will spend the foreseeable future with us. One of the best things about raising turkeys is the turkey eggs. They are extra large and beautiful, very tasty for breakfast, and great for baking too. I am looking forward to having lots of turkey eggs next spring for eating and selling. We will likely also raise up another batch or two of turkey poults, probably selling a few more poults next year. Of all of the experiences we’ve had since moving to the farm, the experience of raising turkeys may just be my favorite. Heritage breed turkeys are amazing birds, and I am thankful that I have been able to contribute in my own small way to the continuation of this wonderful breed.
Eleanor’s little ones are eight weeks old now, and they are not so little anymore. They have officially entered the teenage turkey phase. We took down the pen that they lived in with Eleanor until they were six weeks old, and the integration with the rest of the flock went remarkably smoothly. Prudence was happy to have her friend Eleanor back, and after a few minutes of Prudence chasing Eleanor around as if to say I’m the dominant turkey now, they resumed their friendship. I was pleasantly surprised to see how well-behaved Prudence has been with the youngsters. She quickly settled into her role as Auntie Prudence, looking after the little ones as if they were her own. Prudence spends most of her days roaming the pasture with Eleanor and the little ones, and occasionally giving chase to one of the chickens when one ventures too close to the happy turkey family. Eleanor is proving herself to be an excellent mother, and she is still looking after the youngsters and sheltering them under her wings at night although by now they are getting a bit too big for that.
With our chickens, when we’ve had teenagers that were integrated into the rest of the flock, the other chickens would chase and peck the chicken teens mercilessly. The mother hen typically grows tired of caring for her offspring by the time they reach six or eight weeks old, and she will begin pecking the teens to drive them away from her when they try to roost under her wings at night. During the day, the mother hen goes back to join her flock-mates, leaving the teens to fend for themselves. At this point, the young chickens are forced to separate from the mother hen and form their own roving gang of teenagers. This has not happened yet with the turkeys, and I’m curious to see how much longer Eleanor and Prudence will continue to look after the youngsters.
I love watching the turkeys throughout the day, but nighttime is my favorite time to watch them. At bedtime, Eleanor patiently allows her youngsters to jockey for position under her wings, even though barely two of them fit under her wings anymore. For a few days after they joined the rest of the flock, Eleanor and the youngsters experimented with sleeping up on the roof of the big coop, but it didn’t look all that comfortable and now they have settled into a new routine. Typically all eight of the turkey teens will get settled in the early evening up on the high roost that Ringo and Prudence sleep on. A bit later in the evening Prudence will fly up to join them, and several of the youngsters will manage to squeeze themselves under Prudence’s wings. Just when everyone has gotten cozy, Ringo will fly up to the roost and peck at everyone, including Prudence, until they all fly back down onto the ground. Eleanor will settle onto a different perching spot with typically five of the youngsters. As it starts to get dark and Ringo seems to be settling in for the night, Prudence will fly up again onto the high perch, and three of the youngsters will fly up to join Prudence for the night. It is truly adorable to see Eleanor and Prudence roosting at night, wings spread, with little turkey heads or tails sticking out from under their wings. I wish the turkeys wouldn’t grow up for a little while longer. Already they are showing signs of who is going to grow up to be a boy and who is going to be a girl, and it looks like five boys and three girls. Before you know it we’ll have a bunch of obnoxious young toms fighting amongst themselves to sort out the hierarchy. But for now I am going to enjoy these next few weeks of adorableness, before the almost certain chaos of turkey toms begins!
Spring is always an exciting time at the farm, and this year even more so because Eleanor hatched eight adorable baby turkeys. She is proving herself to be an excellent first-time mother, which is quite a relief since not all first time turkey moms are up for the task based on what I have read. We have Eleanor and her little ones in a small coop of their own, along with a small fenced area of pasture so that none of the other turkeys or chickens can bother them. Eleanor has been quite attentive to her poults, and she is generally very careful where she puts her large feet when she gets up and walks around in the coop so as not to step on the little ones. However, I have seen her step on the babies on a couple of occasions when she has gotten a bit excited when we have gotten too close to her and the babies, and that’s when I know that it’s time for me to close the coop door and let them have some alone time. For the first week we did not see much of the babies since it was relatively cold outside, and they stayed under Eleanor much of the time except for short periods of eating and drinking. At about a week old, the babies started spending more time out from under their mom. Eleanor was very protective of her little ones though, and every time I would open the coop door to refill the feeder she would make an alarm call and the babies would go dashing back under her for safety. When the poults reached 10 days old, the weather had warmed up enough so that Eleanor brought the babies outside the coop for the first time.
Now that the poults are getting a bit older, Eleanor seems to be slightly less protective of her babies and they are spending more time out from under mom. Poultry that are hen-raised, meaning raised naturally by their mom, tend to be more skittish around humans than poultry that are raised from the chick stage by humans. We have definitely observed this with our flock, and of course it is much more fun to have tame chickens and turkeys than skittish ones that go running in the opposite direction when they see you coming. So it is time for us to begin socializing the little ones so that they get used to us being around and are not afraid to come up to us for treats or hopefully even some lap time one of these days. It is still too early to make any guesses about how many boys and how many girls we have. I usually have bad luck with the male/female ratio whenever we hatch or buy chicks to add to the flock. As you may recall, when we got our first four turkey poults last spring they all turned out to be Turkey Boys, so I am hoping that we get at least a couple of girls in the bunch this time around so that we can add one or two girls to the turkey flock.
These next few weeks are bound to be interesting. I can tell that Eleanor is ready to have a larger area of pasture to roam because she has already jumped over the fence of the pen we have her in with the poults twice today. Luckily she did not go far, and it was easy to shoo her back in with her babies. We will need to keep the babies separated from the rest of the flock until they get big enough so they don’t get accidentally trampled if Ringo decides he wants to give Eleanor some affection. The poults also need a very high protein feed for their first three months, so the longer we can keep them separated from the rest of the flock, the easier it makes feeding time. The little ones are starting to jump up onto a roost that is a foot off of the ground, so I have a feeling they will be jumping over the fence of their pen to escape out into the bigger pasture along with their mom in no time. Of course it will probably be right around the time that I leave for my first vacation in a year and a half. Every time I spend a night away from the farm it seems like all heck breaks loose, so I am pretty certain that my being away from the farm for four nights next month will be the exact time that the turkeys start misbehaving in a serious way. Sean will be here to troubleshoot while I’m away, so the turkeys will be in good hands, if he can catch them that is!
Our two turkey hens, Eleanor and Prudence, have been laying eggs for about a month now. They lay beautiful cream to light brown colored eggs with darker brown speckles. Before they started laying, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of nest box we should build for them. In preparation for the big event, I had read a lot about turkey egg laying behavior. Wild turkeys will make a nest on the ground, usually in the brush but sometimes more out in the open, and I learned that it’s fairly common for heritage turkey breeds, like we have, to flee the safety of where they are kept to go hide in the bushes somewhere to make a nest just like a wild turkey would. Nesting in the wild is a dangerous proposition, as they are an easy meal for any passing predator. Since both Eleanor and Prudence had flown over the fence and spent the night in the blackberries when they were younger girls (Wild at Heart), I was terribly worried that they would do the same thing when it came time to lay their eggs. I wanted to build them a nest in the pasture that would encourage them to stay close to home to lay their eggs. Of course we have built several structures for the turkeys over the last year, and most of them have been totally rejected as unsuitable for reasons unknown to us. So we debated about whether it was worth the effort to build a turkey nest box, knowing full well that they probably would reject it no matter how hard we tried to build something to their mysterious specifications. We did make one attempt by building a turkey sized nest box under one of the pallet structures, but of course the turkeys showed no interest in it. So we figured we would wait and see what they did.
Prudence was the first to lay, and much to my amazement she laid her first egg, and every egg since then, in a small chicken nest box in Ramon’s coop. Eleanor started laying a day later, and for the first couple of days I would find her eggs just sitting on the ground out in the open in the pasture. Then by her third egg, Eleanor started laying on the floor in the corner of Ramon’s coop. Eleanor is a bit larger than Prudence, and there was no way that she was going to fit into the chicken nest box. Needless to say, I was quite relieved that both of the girls had found somewhere safe to lay their eggs. I still worried a bit though that when one of the girls decided she was ready to hatch some eggs, she would fly over the fence and head off into the bushes. About a week ago, Eleanor started spending the night in Ramon’s coop instead of on her high roost with Ringo and Prudence. It seemed that Eleanor had gone broody, meaning she is ready to set and hatch eggs. I began making more and more frequent trips out to the pasture, looking to see if Eleanor was spending all day and all night in Ramon’s coop which would mean that she was truly broody. After several days of her being camped out in Ramon’s coop, I was convinced that she was broody. I had been hoping that one of the girls would go broody so that we could hatch some turkeys, and I again breathed a huge sigh of relief that she had done it in the safety of Ramon’s coop.
I had been collecting turkey eggs every day to store them safely in the house, and now that Eleanor was broody it was time to give her some eggs to incubate. I went outside one afternoon and called everyone for treats, and I was happy that Eleanor came out of the coop for treats. She had been sitting on two eggs that I had left in there for her for a couple of days. I quickly removed those eggs and put 10 newer eggs in the coop, marked with a big X on the bottom with a pen, so that I would know which ones were being incubated, and I could collect any newly laid eggs by Prudence that Eleanor may also try to incubate. It is important that all of the eggs that are being incubated start out being incubated at the same point in time so that they all hatch within a couple of days of each other. After I put the eggs in the coop and Eleanor had spent a few minutes in the pasture and was ready to go back into the coop, I saw her stick her head in the door, make a little noise, and then leave. Uh oh I thought, she knows something is up. I went about my business and came back to check in about an hour, and thankfully Eleanor was back in the coop in her usual spot, but she was only setting on four eggs, while the other eight sat beside her on the floor. Darn it! She definitely knew something was up. But thankfully her instincts kicked in, and when I checked on Eleanor a few hours later she was setting on all of the eggs. I did a happy dance! This just might work after all! It’s been two days since I gave Eleanor the eggs, and I have not seen her leave the coop once. A broody hen’s instincts are strong, and they will only leave the nest for a few minutes each day to eat, drink, poop, and take a quick dust bath. I’m sure she knows what she needs to do to take care of herself and her eggs, but if I don’t see her leave the nest in a few more days I may try to encourage her to leave for a bit to make sure she is eating and drinking. I have heard of a few sad stories where an especially devoted broody hen will actually starve herself while incubating eggs. So fingers crossed that all goes well, and in about 26 days we should have turkey poults hatching at the farm!
We’ve had a good run of everyone getting along fairly well here at the farm, but as the old saying goes, nothing good lasts forever. Now that spring is here, love is in the air, along with the hormones that go along with it which always seems to bring out the bad behavior in the boys. The first offender was Ringo the turkey, who has started challenging and attacking my husband Sean, every time he goes into the lower pasture. Of course he’s only going into the pasture to take care of some chore to make things nicer for the turkeys and chickens, but that doesn’t matter to Ringo. Ringo will chase after Sean, walk around him in circles looking for any potential weakness, and vigorously peck anything he can get his beak on. At well over 20 pounds, a tom turkey is nothing to mess around with, they can inflict serious injury if you don’t pay attention. Although being attacked by a turkey is no laughing matter, there is a slightly humorous aspect to the situation which is that all the while the tom turkey is in attack mode, he makes a sound that is referred to as the “fighting purr”. It is a high pitched purr-like call, and the first few times we heard it we thought it was kind of sweet and endearing. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that such a cute sound is not a happy turkey call, but an aggressive turkey call. So now when we hear the fighting purr, we know it will soon be followed by Ringo charging at Sean, who then opens the gate, Ringo charges out in attack mode, and then Sean quickly walks into the pasture while leaving Ringo stranded outside. When the chore in the pasture is done, Sean opens the gate, Ringo charges back in, and Sean walks back out. Problem solved.
The other case of boys behaving badly is not such an easy fix. Ramon, our alpha rooster, has been coexisting with his son Brown Rooster, since last fall. A couple of weeks ago I noticed some occasional sparring between the two, and Ramon started chasing Brown Rooster around the pasture a bit. Then last week I noticed that instead of going into his own small coop at night with his ladies Henny, Penny, and Lil’ Miss, Ramon was spending the night in the big coop with Brown Rooster and Brown’s ladies. For a few nights I went into Brown’s coop, removed Ramon, and closed the automatic chicken door so Ramon couldn’t get back in. After doing this for a few nights with no change in Ramon’s behavior, I soon realized that my attempts at problem solving were not going to have any effect. I decided that the boys would have to work it out for themselves. The sparring and chasing has been gradually escalating, with Ramon maintaining his status as the dominant rooster until this morning when the tide had noticeably turned in Brown Rooster’s favor. Brown Rooster must have gotten tired of taking Ramon’s guff, and he decided not to take it anymore. This morning when I went down to feed everyone, I found Ramon with a blooded comb and an attitude adjustment. Instead of strutting proudly around the pasture, he was hiding underneath the coop. When I called to him to come out, which I did not expect to actually work, to my surprise he came out rather dejectedly as if he was seeking some sympathy. I held him for a minute and inspected him for injuries. When I put him down, he ran right over to the other coop which he quickly crawled under. A few moments later, Brown Rooster ran after him and also crawled under the coop. I called Ramon, and again he came over to me and out from under the coop. By this time I could see what was going on. Brown Rooster, at three years old, had knocked Ramon who is four years old, down a peg in the pecking order. On the one hand it was Karma coming back around on Ramon, who had done the same thing to his coop mate Reuben a year and a half ago. But on the other hand, the rooster pecking order is more vicious than the hen pecking order, and I didn’t want Brown Rooster doing serious injury to Ramon. Aside from the Reuben incident, which you can’t really blame him for, Ramon has been a very good rooster. He is an attentive guard and good provider for his ladies. He is also gentle with the ladies, and I want him to sire some offspring for us this summer.
So what do I do with Brown Rooster? For now he is having a time-out in a separate pen inside the lower pasture, while Ramon regains his confidence and struts around the pasture with the ladies. This may temporarily take Brown Rooster back down a notch, but probably not. I will most likely end up moving Brown Rooster and a few of his girls back to the upper pasture. Our old biddies, Raquel, Rhoda, and Rosie, who are now six years old, will be none too excited to have to live with a rooster again. But Brown Rooster can watch over them and keep an eye out for aerial predators now that we have taken down the net that used to be over the upper pasture. It’s likely that moving Brown Rooster to the upper pasture will bring with it another set of problems. I can easily see Brown Rooster trying to attack and peck Reuben, my special needs rooster, through the fencing of his enclosure. Reuben has been singing his musical crow these last few weeks again, which I take to mean that he is feeling well and enjoying life as much as he can given the cards that he’s been dealt. I don’t want Reuben’s quality of life to be reduced, and I’m sure I will need to make some adjustments to Reuben’s enclosure if I move Brown Rooster to the other side of Reuben’s fence. It can be a lot of work at times, but if I wasn’t trouble-shooting rooster relationships I’d be trying to fix something else. After all, there is certainly never a dull moment at the farm!