Wild at Heart
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.