Turkeys – introduction

Information about the physical and behavioural characteristics of turkeys.

Varietal range differences

Turkeys are generally used for showing and meat production with show birds usually being used for meat after they are shown.

Common breeds of turkey include:

  • Black
  • Bourbon
  • Bronz
  • Narragansett
  • Royal Palm
  • Slate
  • White.

Male turkeys are referred to as ‘toms’ and young turkeys ‘poults’. Due to the domestication of turkeys and selective breeding for enormous body size, turkeys cannot participate in many ‘normal’ behaviours. Adult turkeys cannot run or fly, they can only walk and they cannot roost. Instead turkeys usually find their way to a comfy spot that is elevated off the ground where they can nest. Turkeys also cannot breed naturally and mating usually results on severe injury to the female. All turkey production occurs through artificial insemination.

Schools that wish to maintain a turkey enterprise need to select a breed suitable for what they which to produce, their local climatic conditions, facilities available and accessibility of markets for any outputs.

Physical characteristics

Characteristic Details
Size Up to one metre tall
Weight Male 8-15kg, Female 4-8kg
Age at adult size Maturity is usually around 7 months old
Weight at hatch 40-60g
Incubation period 28 days
Range of breeding ages Well grown pullets from 7 months of age
Healthy characteristics
  • Body temperature: 40-42°C
  • Heart rate: 180-340 beats per minute


Turkeys have excellent daytime vision, with a wide field of vision, which allows them to identify predators and danger during the day while they are roaming and foraging. Their night time vision however is quite poor, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by predators at night time. For this reason, keeping turkeys, just like all breeds of poultry secure and safe at night is very important.

Image: Turkeys have a wide field of vision, allowing them to identify predators and danger.


Due to turkeys being prey animals, they have very sensitive hearing, which enables them to hear and identify predators or danger. Their excellent vision and hearing equips turkeys to be able to identify and alert the rest of their flock in the case of a predator approaching as they have limited self defence and domesticated turkeys cannot fly.

Behavioural characteristics

Turkeys are social animals that are best kept in flocks with a mixture of males and females. Domestication of turkeys has left them less able to survive in the wild than their wild ancestors. Their enormous body size means that turkeys can only walk, they cannot run and their only means of self-defence is to flap their wings. This makes them very easy targets for predators and they must be kept in a secure area at all times.

Turkeys thrive in an environment, which mimics their natural habitat, providing plenty of space to participate in natural behaviours like scratching and foraging for vegetation. Unlike fowls however they do not scratch up the soil excessively, but peck at the grass instead, making them much more sustainable in a free ranging system as they will not destroy their grass. Turkeys have a very curious nature and during the day turkeys like to roam around, feeling comfortable to adventure beyond their home turf if not enclosed in an area. They will often approach anything new or strange to investigate it. At night turkeys do not roost like fowls, but rather bed down somewhere comfortable, usually in an elevated place if they can get to it.

Turkeys use a gobbling noise to communicate with one another. Females have a softer ‘gobbling’ call while male’s call can be quite loud. The males will often call out without reason but usually they will call out to alert their flock because have spotted an intruder or predator.

Turkeys should never be kept in isolation and find comfort in being in a flock. Turkeys will form a hierarchy or pecking order amongst their flock with clear dominant individuals, usually males and older females. Turkeys can be aggressive towards one another, especially if new birds are introduced to an existing flock. Head pecking is common and to avoid injury when introducing new birds, introduce two new birds at once so that the entire flock cannot focus on an individual new bird.

Turkeys can be quite territorial animals and males will often fight with one another. Toms should only be introduced into the same enclosure when mating season is over. When introducing a new tom to a flock, always monitor the birds to make sure no bird is excessively injured while fighting and be present to break up fights. Females will also become aggressive to new birds that are introduced to the flock and will also be aggressive to other species of birds and chicken. Female turkeys with poults will also defend their young from other birds and handlers. Never introduce a new bird in hot weather as this can lead to further problems such as heat exhaustion and dehydration.

All poultry, including turkeys develop their own personal space referred to as their flight zone. A flock of turkeys will have a collective flight zone depicted by their individual characteristics, breed, age, environment and previous handling experiences. If an animal’s flight zone is penetrated, the animals move away to regain a more comfortable distance from the intruder. Turkeys raised in a pen with close contact to people will have a smaller flight zone and be calmer when being handled as opposed to turkeys raised in a free ranging area with minimal contact with people. It is common for turkeys that have been hand raised to be very tame and comfortable being caught and handled. Turkeys are very easy to catch due to their inability to run or fly.

Due to turkeys most commonly being housed in pens and large enclosures, the need for them to be herded is minimal, making their flight zone not as influential as other farm animals. The flight zone does become influential when turkeys need to be caught for husbandry procedures, showing, moving them and locking them into smaller pens or cages. However due to turkeys' inability to run or fly, even if they are unaccustomed to handling, they are still very easy to catch. Turkeys kept in a free ranging setup may also have to be herded into smaller enclosures at night for extra protection or for easy catching.

Image: Adult turkeys have very large bodies that decrease their ability to participate in many ‘normal’ behaviours.


In general, turkeys used in schools have been extensively handled and are quite comfortable with people being close by and in the pens. Most turkeys used in schools will be comfortable with being caught, patted and groomed due to extensive handling. When turkeys are hand raised from hatching they become very tame and will eat out of a handler's hand and come forward to the handler to investigate them. Turkeys should never be kept in isolation as a pet as they are very sociable, curious animals and thrive off both social and environmental enrichment.

As with most poultry, turkeys are susceptible to behavioural problems related to a lack of stimulation when they are kept in intensive conditions. Feather pecking and cannibalism are issues commonly suffered by birds that do not have enough stimulation and cannot perform normal behaviours like socialising, pecking at vegetation and scratching in the dirt. Turkeys are sociable, curious animals and need stimulation, which can be provided by natural vegetation and environment, objects to climb up on to roost such as hay bales and roosting houses, as well as other birds to socialise with. Turkeys can also be kept with other poultry species like fowls. Unfortunately most turkeys raised for meat production are kept in very intensive conditions in small cages and often develop behavioural issues. It is recommended where turkeys are kept in schools that they are in large enclosures or a free-range environment.


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