When we started looking into raising turkeys early this year, we kept coming across a few consistent threads of turkey lore—that they are stupid; that poults have to be shown what to eat at first; that turkeys will stampede at the slightest provocation, trampling and suffocating each other; that turkeys will drown in a heavy rain; that turkeys break their eggs because they lay them standing up, and so on.
I beg to differ.
Our experience may be uncharacteristic, because we are raising Narragansetts, a breed closely derived from the Eastern Wild Turkey. These are not the grotesquely deformed 'Butterballs' which have had their natural avian grace replaced with bland tasteless tumors of white meat. Narragansetts are spectacularly beautiful birds, large, stately and graceful, with woodland markings. They recall, from deep within, what it is to be a real bird. And when the Toms display, they are the very strutting epitome of what any first-grader or buckle-hatted Pilgrim would recognize as a Turkey—gobble, wattle, snood and all.
Unlike chickens, turkeys have a social structure, which implies they have some awareness of individuals. They have elegant, stylized, sometimes comical display and courtship behaviors. They communicate with one another and with the rafter—the term for a group of turkeys—as a whole. They are muscular fliers, and frequently leap into the air and wheel about for no apparent reason, often half a dozen bursting into flight nearly simultaneously.
They are curious and inquisitive, and have a broad vocabulary of vocalizations that seem to express a wide range of moods, from quiet contentment to pique, alarm and distress. A certain distinctive cry will make them all look in a particular direction and freeze for several seconds. They listen attentively to the flock of chickens, who are out of sight and some distance away across the ridge, and will echo and amplify calls of distress or alarm they may hear from their galliform brethren.
They are generally tranquil and appear thoughtful, unlike the frantic and seemingly pointless activity of chickens. They will cock their heads sideways and quizzically watch an airplane far overhead. I would go as far as to say they are affectionate, recalling how when they were younger (and mercifully smaller) as many as seven or nine young turkeys would hop onto my shoulders, back, neck and extended arms until I couldn't support any more. Once there, they would pick at my hair and ears, cooing quietly all the while.
As a way of showing our appreciation for these magnificent birds, we have gone all out in revamping their habitat. We began with significantly expanding the footprint of their enclosure into the adjacent forest on several sides. We then replaced the standard tee-stakes and four-foot welded wire fence with ten-foot black iron pipes driven two-and-a-half feet into the ground and five-foot welded wire.
We then replaced the lightweight netting roof with 2" mesh aviary netting, held up with/suspended from a complex rope web. Large ropes run from tree to tree outside the enclosure, and smaller ropes run from the tops of the pipes, connected to the suspensors through the netting with carabiners. A final run of rope traverses the perimeter of the fence, providing an edge for the netting to be pulled over. It is a spectacular flight cage, a clear-sky tent of swooping catenaries and vast volumes for the birds to play in, with rough-cedar roosts for them to sleep on under the stars.
It is a real pleasure to share the place with them. Many an evening we have spent just sitting, quietly watching them go about their gentle routine of strolling about their enclosure nibbling the odd bit of forage, preening, stretching like little feathered ballerinas, convulsively dirt-bathing or softly dozing off...