Turkeys – handling
Information about handling, training and showing turkeys.
Schools that keep turkeys must have suitably constructed pens and cages that facilitate the capture and restraint of an animal, if required. These pens may be portable but must be solid in construction and erected in a way to be safe for both humans and turkeys.
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General handling information
Turkeys need to be handled calmly and with care to prevent distress and injury to the animals. They have sensitive hearing and vision and will be frightened easily by loud noises and sudden movements. Always approach the birds slowly, giving them plenty of time to see you and avoid chasing. This agitates the turkeys, provoking a flight response and may cause them to pile up in corners, causing injury. Take care to limit noise and move slowly and calmly when handling turkeys. Due to being prey animals, turkeys have a strong flight response and their first response to danger is to try and escape.
Students can observe one bird for individual behaviour and two birds, a male and a female, for breeding behaviour however in order to observe turkeys undertaking natural behaviour it is important to remain still and quiet as they are very easily frightened.
Turkeys are prey animals with very little self-defence ability and so their first response to anything that may represent danger is to try and escape as quickly as possible. They are naturally wary of people but will become very tame with extensive handling. Even when adult turkeys are not especially tame, they are never very difficult to catch, as they cannot run. Hand raised animals will usually be exceptionally tame and the turkeys curious nature makes them particularly tame birds. Usually turkeys will not show aggression towards handlers, however toms can become aggressive during mating season and will be protective of their flock. They are also quite territorial animals and will become aggressive towards other toms and any new birds that are introduced to the flock. Female turkeys will be protective over a clutch of eggs that she is brooding and her young poults. Avoid disturbing a turkey that is incubating her eggs or has poults, as this will cause stress. Care should always be taken when entering an enclosure with toms and if individual birds begin to regularly show aggression they should be removed from the school.
When handling a flock of turkeys in a large enclosure or paddock, it is difficult to select and move individual birds. If a flock or individual birds need to be moved it is best to gather the flock together and move the whole flock to the new paddock or a corner or a smaller enclosure where individuals can be selected. Do not rush the turkeys as they will pile up in the corner and will become stressed. A long stick can be used to help direct and steer the birds where you need them to go. Always move birds slowly and patiently to avoid them panicking and scattering.
As with all animals, turkeys have a flight zone, which will affect their behaviour when being handled. Very tame birds that are used to handler being close by may not move forward unless the handler is very close and encouraging the birds forward by waving a stick, arms or making soft clapping noises and some birds may scatter or pile up as soon as a handler enters the enclosure. Turkeys kept in schools however are usually very tame due to extensive handling and will often approach the handler upon entering the enclosure and may require the handler to be very close in order to encourage them to move forwards. If turkeys are used to coming towards the handler for food, they can also be attracted through a gateway, into another pen or into a cage with food reward.
Before moving turkeys to a new enclosure or a small pen for catching it is important to have the pens and fences prepared and set up to make moving them simple and easy. Make sure correct gates to the destination pen are open and any areas that will not be used are closed off to make directing the birds easier. Confining birds to a laneway with all other sections closed off or barricaded will help to move birds more efficiently. Keep in mind that turkeys are slow moving birds and should never be rushed. Try to avoid having to change directions or walk past open areas with turkeys as they can be difficult to manoeuvre and will lose direction easily. Always move turkeys in a calm, quiet, slow manner as rushing them will only panic them and cause them to pile up or scatter.
Capture and restraint
Turkeys must not be carried by the head, neck, wings or tail.
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When handling turkeys of any age, care must be taken to ensure they are always handled calmly and gently, especially young poults, as they are very fragile. Adult turkeys can also have quite fragile legs and due to their large body mass need to be caught and restrained with care. The common method of catching and picking up a bird by legs that is used for most poultry is not an appropriate way to catch a turkey. When students are handling very young poults it is recommended that the students stay seated when possible to keep the bird lower to the ground. Falls can be fatal for very young birds. When young birds are being moved to another area or cage they can be placed in an enclosed box to prevent them escaping and falling.
Turkeys should be captured and handled only when necessary. Schools should always use birds that have become accustomed to handling from a young age. Avoid chasing birds as this agitates them and causes them to pile up in corners. The use of catching hooks are not recommended for adult turkeys due to their weak legs however they may be necessary for catching young birds. If a catching hook is used, a bird should be drawn towards the handler firmly but not so quickly as to damage shank, leg or joints. Firmly and quietly transfer the bird to the holding position.
The holding position involves restraining one hock joint between the index finger and thumb, and the other hock joint between the third and fourth fingers. The bird’s breast, or keel bone, sits comfortably on the palm of hand with the bird’s head pointing towards the handler’s body and the vent away. When catching large adult turkeys, stand behind the turkey, place both arms around the chest of the bird and pull the bird in towards your chest, restraining and supporting the wings and back. This is the safest method of catching a turkey. Never hold a turkey up by its legs as you would with a fowl.
When walking with a bird, its head can be tucked under the carrier’s upper arm. The non-holding arm can be used to assist with restraining the bird and prevent the wings from flapping.
Turkeys should not be kept in isolation and when in single cages should always have another bird in sight.
Where birds are kept in a free-range system, it is more difficult to catch them. The best way to catch turkeys in a large area is to slowly walk behind the birds, holding a long stick as an aid for directing them. Herd the birds into a corner, or preferably a smaller enclosure where an individual bird can be selected and captured. Do not chase the birds around a large area. This will only result in the birds becoming stressed, injured and scared of handler in future.
Turkeys should be acclimatised to handling to help make working with them more efficient and safer for the animals and the handlers. Familiarising birds is typically used for better outcomes in a variety of situations and for different purposes and generally occurs with consistent handling from a young age. These include:
- For pen cleaning and daily management
- For showing and preparation
- Movement between pens and facilities
- Routine husbandry procedures (drenching, leg banding, washing, skin treatments, toenail clipping, lice dusting)
Routines make familiarising and handling turkeys much easier and time efficient. It is not so influential when birds are housed in smaller enclosures, but in a free range system, routine feeding will encourage the birds to go to a particular area at a particular time and also when they recognise handlers approaching. This can aid in being able to catch the birds or in locking them into a smaller pen for handling, movement or security.
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Time and effort needs to be put into training and preparing animals for showing. Training is best done slowly from a young age. Extensive handling from a young age will ensure that turkeys are comfortable with being handled and surrounded by people, which will reduce stress levels when they are taken to a show. Preparation for the show starts long before the show and involves correct feeding, parasite control, regular grooming and taming of birds to ensure they are in peak physical condition when it is time for them to be shown.
To train turkeys for showing conditions, use as adequately sized training pen, placed in a very well shaded area. Provide clean, dry, floor litter and ad lib feed and water. Ensure the turkeys are treated with appropriate drenches and lice dusts to minimise internal and external parasites at least three weeks before the show. This will ensure they will not spread any possible parasites when they are in the company of other birds and that they are in optimum health for the show.
Cover the pen with a hessian bag to lower the light level. Ensure quiet, steady movements near and around training pens. Use hands to smooth the feathers and handle the bird to get it used to being picked up and examined. If the animal becomes at all agitated, cease handing. If a bird is to be removed from the pen, move it in and out head first. Placing birds in a training pen will accustom birds to being in a smaller pen away from their flock, similar to the conditions they would be under at a show. This will result in the birds not relating the cages to danger but rather a pleasant experience. This also allows the handler to be in the small pen with birds so they become comfortable with people being close by and picking them up, stoking and examining them. A bird that is used to being around people and handled will deal with showing conditions well and will be able to express its qualities in the cage for judging rather than being stressed and agitated.