Raising Backyard Turkeys
Once revered as a religious icon in Aztec culture and championed by Benjamin Franklin as a candidate for the national symbol of a burgeoning United States (losing out to the bald eagle), turkeys have a long and revered history, but few have much experience with the the iconic game bird beyond the occasional sandwich or as the main attraction at Thanksgiving dinner.
Chickens are all but a fixture in backyards these days. Ducks are gaining popularity and the occasional guinea fowl may make an appearance here and there. But turkeys? Interesting to look at, extremely social and great at keeping bug populations down, turkeys are not without their charms. Although egg production is low and most are raised for their meat, some backyard poultry keepers are now adding turkeys to the backyard flock as pets. Are turkeys right for you?
The two basic types of turkeys are domesticated and wild. Domesticated turkeys, bred to be eaten, are about twice as heavy as wild turkeys and, because they are built to offer significantly more breast meat, cannot fly, and are poor runners. Domesticated birds are also noisier than wild turkeys and generally considered less intelligent than heritage breeds. So it may seem counter-intuitive, but when raising turkeys for reasons other than meat, wild turkeys are the better choice for the backyard enthusiast.
Raising turkeys in a backyard setting isn’t always practical, but not without its perks. Extremely friendly, a backyard turkey is likely to follow its owner around the yard and assist in gardening by gobbling up pests. And watching their antics can provide hours of entertainment. Turkeys love company and their social disposition is best served by keeping several in the flock to keep each other company.
Although a viable option as backyard poultry, keeping turkeys can be problematic. Quick to take flight, they can easily clear even tall fences, making them a danger to themselves and a potential nuisance to neighbors. Turkeys are also prodigious eaters, messier than other backyard birds and more prone to disease. For these reasons, maintenance of a turkey flock can be expensive and will require more attention than chickens.
Adding a few turkeys to an existing flock of chickens is possible, but housing turkeys with chickens can be hazardous to the health of the turkeys. Turkeys are more susceptible to some diseases (most notably blackhead disease) that may not impact chickens, but can be catastrophic to a turkey population. Although many hobbyists choose to integrate the flocks, the risks may outweigh the reward. Before introducing turkeys to a backyard chicken population, determine if blackhead disease in common in your area.
If your plan is to raise turkeys to be dressed for Thanksgiving dinner, there is value in knowing they were naturally raised, but as a money-saving tactic, the numbers don’t add up. Loss leader sales during the holidays mean a supermarket turkey will feed the family for about half the cost of raising them yourself and once you’ve spent time with a turkey, it’ll be much harder to consider them for the dinner table.
The challenges of raising turkeys may be more than the casual hobbyist is looking for, but for those who choose to raise them, this personality-plus poultry can be worth the effort. Before you get started, check local ordinances to see if these game birds are legal to keep in your neighborhood.