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!
As you may have noticed by now, I am endlessly fascinated with our turkeys, especially the variety of sounds they make while communicating with each other. If you do an internet search of wild turkey sounds and listen to the hen calls, I’m sure you will be fascinated too. When we got our two turkey hens, Eleanor and Prudence, their only pasture-mates were our turkey Ringo, Ramon the rooster, and his three ladies, Henny, Penny and Little Miss. The chickens had been living in the pasture on their own for several months before we introduced the turkeys, and Ramon’s ladies had definitely taken ownership over the pasture. When we added Eleanor and Prudence to the pasture, Ramon’s ladies let them know in no uncertain terms that the chickens were the rulers of the pasture, and that the chickens got first dibs at treat time. Eleanor and Prudence were a bit skittish when we got them, and I was trying to train them to come when called and to eat treats out of my hand. Every time Eleanor and Prudence would gradually approach me for treats, one of Ramon’s girls would peck or chase them away. As I watched the interactions of the turkey hens and the chickens from a distance, I saw that Prudence routinely would turn around and run the other way when one of Ramon’s ladies approached her. Eleanor, the bolder turkey, would sometimes chase after Ramon’s ladies when they went after Prudence. This went on for several months, until one day I noticed that instead of Prudence running away from Ramon’s ladies, Prudence was actually seeking out their company.
Before I got the turkeys and I was doing my research, I read that it was fine to keep turkeys and chickens together, but that they would typically hang out within their own species groups. I’ve found that more often than not, Eleanor and Prudence can be found hanging out with the chickens, in particular Ramon’s girls (the black ones). The chickens sleep inside their coops at night, and they don’t come out of their coops in the morning until the automatic chicken coop doors open. The automatic doors have a light sensor, so they open at varying times after sunrise, depending upon how bright the morning is. On these gray rainy mornings, the automatic chicken coop doors don’t open as early as they would on a sunny morning. When the turkeys fly down from their outdoor perch in the morning, they look around for their chicken friends, and if the automatic coop chicken doors have not yet opened, Eleanor and Prudence begin calling for the chickens. The turkeys stand right outside the door of Ramon’s coop, yelping their mournful turkey calls until the chicken door opens and they are reunited with their favorite companions, and all is again peaceful in the pasture. On rainy or windy days, the chickens will take shelter from the weather and hunker down inside or under their coops, while the turkeys tend to be a bit more tolerant of the nasty weather and will continue to stay out in the open. As they do in the mornings, Eleanor and Prudence will start calling for the chickens when they notice that they are alone in the pasture. Eleanor and Prudence will then go in search of the chickens, and the sad turkey calls will cease only when the turkeys have located their chicken friends. I’m not sure if Eleanor and Prudence think that the chickens are turkeys, or if they have just been granted honorary turkey status, but either way the chickens appear to be part of the turkey tribe.
We’ve had quite a spell of wild weather here at the farm recently. It started out the Monday before Christmas with a big windstorm that blew down lots of nearby trees and knocked out our power for 63 hours. We all survived that just fine thanks to our wood stove and our generator which kept us warm and with lights and enough power to operate our electronic devices and keep us from going stir crazy. We woke up Christmas Eve morning to find that our power had been restored and that 2 inches of snow had fallen. It was the perfect beginning to Christmas, although I had a feeling that the turkeys would not be quite as excited as I was to see the snow. Most of our chickens have become accustomed to snow over the years, but the first time a chicken sees snow it is typically very wary of setting foot on this mysterious white stuff covering the ground. Fortunately for our chickens, when they peer out of the coop door to see their first snow, they can choose to stay inside the coop and have their morning food and water in the comfort of the coop without having to venture out into the snow. Eventually they get brave and tentatively step into the snow and realize it’s not going to hurt them, and then all is well in their chicken world again.
The turkeys, however, do not have the same luxury of staying in the coop to avoid the snow. That’s because despite my many attempts to convince the turkeys to sleep inside the chicken coop, they prefer to sleep outside on their high roost no matter what the weather. On this particular morning they woke up to not only snow covering the ground but also covering them! They would need to fly down off of their roost in order to get food and water and also to preen and dry out their feathers since they had been getting snowed on for several hours before sunrise. But they were hesitant to fly down onto the snow-covered ground having never seen snow before. Almost every morning when I go out to feed the chickens and turkeys, the turkeys are already foraging and roaming the pasture, but the morning of their first snow the turkeys were still on their roost when I came out to feed everyone. I looked up at them on the roost, and I saw that Ringo’s feathers on his breast and underside were soaking wet and he was shivering a bit. Prudence and Eleanor looked like they were ready to get out of the snow too. I felt sorry for them and thought that they would be happier if they were down off their roost and on the covered chicken coop porch where they could get a respite from the snow.
The turkey roost is six feet off the ground, so I had to get a step stool from the garage so I could reach them and try to get them down off the roost. It was pretty awkward trying to wrangle the turkeys down from their roost onto the ground since they are big and heavy and when they flap their wings it’s pretty easy to get smacked in the face! I managed to coax Prudence and Ringo to step onto my arm so that I was able to bring them down off the roost, but I had to grab Eleanor since she is less tame. I finally got them all down and onto the coop porch for breakfast. Prudence and Eleanor spent much of the day on the porch while Ringo explored the snowy pasture. I hoped that the snow would encourage the turkeys to spend the night in the coop, but by the afternoon Prudence and Eleanor had begun exploring the snow, and the turkeys spent the night on their outdoor roost as usual. The next morning there was still snow on the ground, but this time the turkeys flew down off their roost and ran to great me for breakfast as usual.
It can be hard to predict chicken behavior and even harder to understand the pecking order. It’s not uncommon for there to be pecking and squabbles among the ladies and gents. It’s impossible to micromanage the flock dynamic, although I’m not ashamed to admit that I have tried on more than one occasion. We’ve recently introduced a few new members to the flock and moved chickens from one pasture to another, and I’m happy to report that we have peace at the farm. It’s been a month and a half since we brought the turkey hens, Eleanor and Prudence to the farm, and they have settled in nicely. The turkeys tend to keep to themselves, but I think they do identify themselves as part of the overall flock. The turkeys sleep outside at night, while the chickens are locked safely in their coops. In the mornings when I go down to open the coops, the turkeys are roaming the pasture, making various loud calls and yelps as if wondering where the rest of their flock is. As soon as they see me, the turkeys come running for their breakfast treats, and Eleanor is now eating out of my hand along with Prudence. I put out some food for the turkeys, then I let Brown Rooster and his ladies out of their coop, and then I let Ramon and his ladies out of their coop. Despite my efforts to try to distract the turkeys and keep them away from the feeder by Brown Rooster’s coop, so that he and his ladies can get their breakfast before the turkeys barge in, the turkeys go wherever and do whatever they want. The chickens are gradually getting used to the turkeys, and somehow everyone manages to get a full belly by night time, despite my worrying and micromanaging.
I’m very pleased that Brown Rooster and Ramon are coexisting together in the same pasture. It’s been over a month since we moved half of the chickens down to the front pasture to let the upper pasture rest over the winter. This move included bringing Brown Rooster down to the lower pasture. There were a couple of sparring matches at first, but nothing serious, and now that Brown Rooster has accepted Ramon’s dominance they are getting along fine. I also moved Raquel’s four bossy daughters down to the front pasture. Having been raised by the boss lady of the flock, Raquel’s daughters are quite bratty and entitled to say the least, They were constantly pecking the shyer easter egger hens in the flock, which are among my favorites, and I felt sorry for them. So when it came time to choose who was moving down to the slightly less predator proof lower pasture, Raquel’s daughters were at the top of the list. They are doing just fine in the lower pasture, although they are not quite so sure of themselves now that they have the turkeys and Ramon’s bossy girls to contend with!
Now that Raquel’s daughters have moved down to the lower pasture, the older girls in the upper coop are all getting along well. Raquel, Rhoda, and Rosie, our 5 and a half year old ladies seem to appreciate not having a Rooster around. Now that there is no rooster in the upper coop, Raquel is exhibiting a bit of rooster-like behavior, which is not uncommon in flocks with no rooster. Typically Raquel is a pretty quiet chicken. As the boss lady, she usually communicates to the others in the flock with her body language, or a quiet growl if another hen is getting on her nerves. But as the dominant hen, it is her responsibility to keep an eye on things, and just the other day I heard her giving a loud rooster-like alarm call when one of the feral cats got a bit too close to the coop for her comfort. Violet’s three daughters, Rosalie, Dusky, and Midnight, are no longer getting pecked by Raquel’s daughters, and our other easter eggers, Buttercup and Reina also seem to enjoy the absence of Raquel’s daughters.
I’m also very happy that we have peace in our fourth coop that houses our three little banty hens, Millie, Salt-n-Pepa. After the first couple of months of pecking and chasing while Millie asserted her dominance over her new roommates, they have finally settled into their roles, and everyone is getting along nicely. Millie allows Salt-n-Pepa to eat treats with her at the same time out of the same treat dish, and the other day I even saw Pepa give Millie a peck on the head with no repercussions from Millie. That was something I never thought I’d see, but it made me realize that the chickens will eventually sort out the pecking order on their own, without too much micromanaging from me.
We’ve had our female turkeys, Eleanor and Prudence, for a month now. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned it’s that heritage turkeys are not just larger versions of their cousin the chicken. They are entirely different beasts, and turkeys are truly wild at heart. When we had the four young tom turkeys, one or two would occasionally jump over their pasture fence. When the toms would jump over the fence, they would always stay close to home, and they could usually be found walking back and forth along the outside edge of the fence, looking for a way back in. This is not the case with the turkey hens. We’ve had a couple of scares with disappearing turkey hens. The first time was the same night that Lil’ Red Rooster went missing. When we got home from a night out in town, Eleanor was not sleeping next to Prudence as she always did, so while Sean searched for Lil’ Red out back, I searched for Eleanor in the front, to no avail.
The next morning, I went outside to search again. It wasn’t long before I heard Prudence calling for her friend with the distinctive turkey yelp, and Eleanor calling back from way down the hill in the blackberries. The lost call of a turkey is a plaintive call, and it was sad to hear the two friends calling back and forth trying to find each other. I began searching in the blackberry for Eleanor by walking along the few trails that Sean had cut in the upper portion of the thicket in the summer to make it easier to pick blackberries. But the trails don’t go very deep into the blackberry, and from what I could tell Eleanor was still at least 25 feet further into the blackberry than I could get on the trails. Soon Sean joined the search and eventually we caught sight of her under the brambles. We had only had Eleanor a couple of weeks, and she was not yet tame enough to eat treats from our hand, so we had little chance of catching her. As soon as one of us would get within a few feet of her, she would turn around and head deeper into the blackberry. So we gave up the search and went in for breakfast. I kept going back outside every half an hour or so to see if Eleanor had made her way out of the blackberry. After a few hours, Eleanor had finally returned to the pasture. Eleanor walked along the outer edge of the fence, while Prudence walked alongside her on the inside edge of the fence, both calling happily to each other now that they were reunited. It took me a little while to chase Eleanor back inside the fence, with her running around the driveway for a few minutes, and then Brown Rooster escaping through the open gate, but eventually everyone was back where they belonged.
About a week later, I discovered Prudence was missing. Luckily, it was daylight this time. I could hear her down in the blackberry, flapping around rather noisily and making a rather distressed sounding call. I was a bit concerned that something may have grabbed hold of her by the frantic flapping and calling sounds that I could hear, and so off I dashed into the blackberry again. It wasn’t long before she flew up and perched on a blackberry branch about 10 feet in front of me. Prudence was much tamer than Eleanor from the start and had been eating out of my hand from the first day we got her, but she still wasn’t tame enough for me to pick her up. I walked slowly toward her hoping not to scare her deeper into the blackberry. I got within in a couple of feet of her and grabbed her quickly. There was a great flapping and a bit of a struggle to get her out of the blackberry, but I was determined not to let her go. I managed to get her back up into the fenced pasture without too much trouble.
Although we had tried to give the turkeys a variety of structures and shelters to meet their needs, we began to wonder if the ladies were jumping over the fence in search of something else. Wild turkeys nest in trees to protect themselves from predators, and heritage turkeys are pretty closely related to wild turkeys. I had read that heritage turkeys prefer to sleep outside, and we have found this to be true. Despite our providing them with a luxurious turkey coop and several roosting structures with cover overhead to keep them out of the rain, they prefer to sleep out in the open. During the day they will take shelter from the rain, but as soon as it’s time for bed they will roost out in the open, typically on the highest roost available. At bedtime, the turkeys always seemed to be investigating each of their roosting options, jumping from one structure to the next, and never seeming quite satisfied. So Sean built them yet another roost, consisting of a split log mounted on top of a 6 foot post, and this time I think we have a winner. Since he put the new roost up, the ladies have slept on it every night, and no one has jumped over the fence.
I have worried many a night as I hear the rain falling outside, knowing that the turkeys are sleeping out in the rain, but in the morning everyone is just fine and no worse for the weather. They have a very large thick coat of feathers, and although the top layer may be wet, they are warm and dry underneath. This morning was the first hard frost of the season, and I noticed that Ringo had a white coating on the top of his back feathers. I reached out to see what it was, and it was a layer of frost! I have a feeling that it won’t be too long before I wake up to a dusting of snow over the farm, including over the turkeys. I will try to keep my worrying to a minimum, as one of the requirements of a heritage turkey breed is their genetic ability to withstand the environmental rigors of living outdoors, and if what I’ve seen so far is any indication, these are some hardy and self-reliant birds and are already among my favorites on the farm.