Anna turkey at Farm Sanctuary
The Species

Turkeys

Anna turkey at Farm Sanctuary

Social, Intelligent Turkeys

Two turkeys at Farm Sanctuary

While many visitors arrive at Farm Sanctuary with an established sympathy for brown-eyed cows and woolly sheep, few depart without a fresh appreciation for the warm, nurturing personalities of turkeys, who possess strong personalities, form friendships, and have a wide range of interests.

Like other ground-dwelling birds such as quail and pheasants, domestic turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in natural settings flourish by scouring their prairie and woodland habitats for food; they routinely care for broods of a dozen or more chicks to ensure their survival. But as component products of a factory-farm system, nearly 300 million turkeys endure overcrowded conditions in contrived, colossal bodies just to be killed within their first six months of life. 46 million of these bright, social birds are slaughtered each year in the United States for Thanksgiving alone.

One need only spend a few minutes feeding fresh clover to a turkey under the willow tree to know that they are clever, playful, and deserving of our care and respect.

A Brief History of Turkeys

~66 million years ago

Survivors on the Ground

The reverberations of an extraterrestrial impact obliterated three-fourths of animal and plant species—but did not extinguish the bird ancestors of today’s galliforms, the order of ground-feeding birds that includes quail, chickens, and turkeys. Their predecessors were spared from destruction while the dominant birds of the era—likely large, toothed, and tree-dwelling—may have been victimized by widespread forest fire and atmospheric disturbance.

~30 million years ago

The Pheasant-Family Split

Most galliforms, including turkeys, fall into the smaller scientific-classification Phasianidae—the pheasant family—for which fossil evidence first finds distinction from other galliforms roughly 30 million years ago. Pheasants, partridges, and Old World quail are among the 150 species of Phasianidae patrolling Earth’s grounds today. Like all families, they share some general physical traits: short beaks, powerful legs, and stout bodies.

~180 CE to ~500 CE

Domestication Events in the New World

Fossil evidence shows that Mesoamerican people had long hunted turkeys, but by 180 CE they had domesticated flocks in the Tehuacán Valley of what is now eastern-central Mexico—making the modern turkey the most widely consumed animal descended from “New World” ancestors. Archaeological evidence indicates that, slightly later, the Anasazi of today’s American Southwest were also keeping Melleagris gallopavo, though perhaps a different subspecies.

~1300 CE to ~1500 CE

Chalchiuhtotolin the Bejeweled Turkey

In Aztec mythology, the god Chalchiuhtotolin, sometimes referred to as the god of plagues, embodied extreme states of being. Chalchiuhtotolin took at least two corporeal forms. In his human form, called Tezcatlipoca, he promoted self-punishment and self-destruction—but when appearing as a “bejeweled” or “emerald fowl,” or “jade turkey,” he wielded the power to eradicate sins.

~1400 CE

At the Beginning of the Navajo

The hunter-gatherer ancestors of the Navajo people are believed to have arrived in the western US around 1400 CE with language connections to the Apache and native people in Canada. In one version of the Navajo emergence myth, Turkey shook his feathers, spreading seed for squash, beans, and melons across the land. Today, ecologists tout the value of plant diversification that ground-dwelling birds advance through the eating and dispersal of seeds.

~1500 CE

Cross-Bred Words for Similar Birds

At first, Spanish conquistadors called turkeys “gallina de la tierra” (“land chickens”) when sending them to Europe. There, the birds’ likeness to African guinea fowl—“turkey cocks” in English, likely since guinea fowl were imported from Turkey—led the English to call them “turkeys.” In Spain, they came to be called “pavo,” the name previously used for peacocks, which were thereafter called “el pavo real”—in Spanish, “true” or “royal” peacocks.

1520 CE

For Food, Feathers, and Sacrifice

After seeing Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital city, Cortes wrote of the abundance of turkeys and their eggs in street markets, at festivals, and in household yards. At Casas Grandes, a trading site in today’s northern Mexico, a large turkey population was kept for feathers and ritual sacrifice, but reportedly never eaten. The Zuni people, as described by Coronado’s expedition, kept turkeys to harvest feathers to fabricate clothing and adornment.

1784

Not the National Bird, Noble Nonetheless

Historians have wrestled over whether Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, to symbolize the nation. Franklin never promoted the turkey as an image to be used on currency or the national seal but, in a letter to his daughter, he did say the eagle was “of bad moral Character” while “the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird…a true original Native of America…though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage…”

1800s

Turkey Idioms Dot the English Language

To quit “cold turkey” is abrupt and uncomfortable—likely a reference to the clammy discomfort associated with addiction withdrawal and its similarity to the cold skin of a plucked turkey carcass. The phrase could also owe its origin to “talk turkey”—to discuss frankly—a version of which (“to talk cold turkey”) dates to the 1800s. “Poor as Job’s turkey,” an allusion to poverty still heard in the American South, likely arose in the same era.

1940

NTF: The Turkey Lobby Arises

Now the largest organization working on behalf of turkey farmers, processors, and “industry partners,” the National Turkey Federation was founded in 1940. The NTF is proud to boast that American turkey consumption has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, as 240 million turkeys are killed each year. Recently, the NTF has worked mostly to reduce government oversight, especially regarding packaging labels, water-use regulations, and labor practices.

1989

Butcher 200 Million, But Pardon Two

In 1947, the NTF presented President Truman with a live Thanksgiving turkey. In 1989, President Bush granted a “Presidential Pardon” to the NTF turkey, speculating about the bird’s probable anxiety. In recent years, social media voting has determined which of two nominated birds will be the “National Turkey,” bringing the President’s exoneration lottery for two innocent birds into the 21st century.

2018

Hyperdomesticated, Syringe-Inseminated

Between 1960, when the USDA began keeping such statistics, and 2018, the average weight of a domestic turkey at slaughter more than doubled—from 15.1 pounds to 31.1 pounds. As with similar trends in different livestock animals, such growth depends on extremely selective breeding practices that can only be achieved via systematic artificial insemination, since such breeding seems to produce turkeys too big to breed naturally.

2019

More Suffering Per Capita

The number of turkeys slaughtered annually in the US peaked at just over 300 million in 1996 and has declined steadily ever since, to 229 million in 2019—the lowest level since 1986. However, over the same period since 1996, the amount of turkey meat produced has held relatively steady at 7.5 billion pounds. The breeding of unnaturally super-sized turkeys has allowed “farmers” to squeeze more revenue out of each bird’s body.

Illustration of a ground-dwelling bird surviving the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Image: Phillip M. Krzeminski

~66 million years ago

Survivors on the Ground

The reverberations of an extraterrestrial impact obliterated three-fourths of animal and plant species—but did not extinguish the bird ancestors of today’s galliforms, the order of ground-feeding birds that includes quail, chickens, and turkeys. Their predecessors were spared from destruction while the dominant birds of the era—likely large, toothed, and tree-dwelling—may have been victimized by widespread forest fire and atmospheric disturbance.

Turkey Facts

  • Elsa turkey at Farm Sanctuary
  • Wild turkeys

    are able to fly at just 13-17 days old.

  • Mother turkeys team up to watch all of their babies as a group.

  • Wild turkeys fly into trees at night to roost together.

  • The home range of a wild turkey flock can extend up to 60,000 acres.

GIF of Hank Williams turkey at Farm Sanctuary.
“It is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates…”
- Dr. Lesley Rogers

Nothing to be Thankful For

Turkeys raised for human consumption are crowded into poorly ventilated industrial production facilities, sometimes with as many as 10,000 birds packed into a single factory building.

  • United States

    236,860,000 turkeys were slaughtered in the United States in 2018.

  • Global

    656,309,000 turkeys were slaughtered worldwide in 2018.

factory farming

Turkeys Used for Meat

Factory-farmed turkeys.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

A turkey suffering from injury and infection on a factory farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

A factory worker artificially inseminating a turkey.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Debeaked turkey poults at a factory farm.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Factory-farmed turkeys.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Desnooded turkeys on a factory farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Turkeys on a transport truck.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Factory farmed turkeys. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Confined and Killed in Vast Numbers

Turkeys raised for human consumption are crowded into poorly ventilated industrial production facilities, sometimes with as many as 10,000 birds packed into a single factory building. In 2017, 285 million of these naturally explorative and socially sophisticated birds were slaughtered in the United States, doubling the number killed for food just 40 years earlier.

Monstrous Breeding Intentions

Commercial male turkeys are selectively bred to grow both rapidly and unnaturally large, achieving a market weight at 4 months of age that is roughly triple the weight of mature male wild turkeys. This rapid growth and resulting body mass can put excessive stress on the birds’ skeletons and hearts, leading to heart failure, an inability to walk, and early death.

Too Big to Naturally Reproduce

Male turkeys (called “toms”) grow breast muscles so big that they prevent the toms from mounting hens to reproduce naturally. As a result, all reproduction of domestic turkeys requires artificial insemination—workers extract semen from males by hand stimulation and massage. To inseminate a hen, a worker must apply enough pressure to her abdomen so that her cloaca will open, allowing a syringe to be inserted into her vagina—this occurs about weekly in females used for reproduction, and more often as they age.

Debeaked and Detoed

Often within their first days of life, turkeys will have parts of their beaks and toes removed. Crowding puts turkeys at risk of injury—their sharp beaks and toes concern producers because they can damage the value of the birds’ flesh. Part of the sensitive, nerve-filled beak is either cut off using a hot blade or shears, or burned off using electrodes and high-voltage current. Farmers will also sever the ends of turkeys’ toes with surgical shears. Such mutilations are routinely done with no pain reliever or anesthetic.

Unable to Move Freely

In warehouse-like rooms containing thousands of turkeys, the birds may be crowded so severely that each bird has only between 2.5 to 4 square feet of space—about the size of a hand towel. As the turkeys grow larger, the crowding grows worse. Nearly 98% of the 285 million turkeys sold in the US are grown on farms that sell more than 30,000 birds a year.

Toxic Conditions for Birds and Workers

Poorly ventilated and overcrowded, turkey farm facilities are commonly filled with dusty, ammonia-laden air. Such contaminated air can bring about a host of health issues—for both turkeys and human workers—including respiratory damage and irritated, swollen eyes. Amazingly, a single worker may be responsible for the care of as many as 30,000 birds, so illnesses and injuries can easily go unnoticed and untreated.

Crated and Trucked Away to Die

Once they reach market weight — on average, 12 to 14 weeks for hens and 16 to 19 weeks for toms — turkeys are thrust into crates and transported to slaughter. As a result of rough handling during crating, severe injuries—dislocated hips and wing fractures—routinely occur. Transport may involve travel over long distances, subjecting turkeys to disturbing noises, disorienting motion, and extreme temperatures. These stresses, coupled with a lack of food and water during transport, contribute to the thousands of birds who die before reaching slaughter.

Immobile But Not Unconscious When Killed

At the end of a harrowing transport, turkeys arrive at the slaughterhouse. Although the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires animals to be rendered insensible before shackling and slaughter, the USDA does not interpret this law to include birds killed for food, and it does not protect turkeys. Because of this, just prior to slaughter, turkeys are most often rendered immobile (but not unconscious) by being dragged through an electrified water bath, after which their arteries are slit, either by an automated machine or by a human worker who cuts any throats missed by automation.

Factory-farmed turkeys.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Confined and Killed in Vast Numbers

Turkeys raised for human consumption are crowded into poorly ventilated industrial production facilities, sometimes with as many as 10,000 birds packed into a single factory building. In 2017, 285 million of these naturally explorative and socially sophisticated birds were slaughtered in the United States, doubling the number killed for food just 40 years earlier.

A turkey suffering from injury and infection on a factory farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Monstrous Breeding Intentions

Commercial male turkeys are selectively bred to grow both rapidly and unnaturally large, achieving a market weight at 4 months of age that is roughly triple the weight of mature male wild turkeys. This rapid growth and resulting body mass can put excessive stress on the birds’ skeletons and hearts, leading to heart failure, an inability to walk, and early death.

A factory worker artificially inseminating a turkey.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Too Big to Naturally Reproduce

Male turkeys (called “toms”) grow breast muscles so big that they prevent the toms from mounting hens to reproduce naturally. As a result, all reproduction of domestic turkeys requires artificial insemination—workers extract semen from males by hand stimulation and massage. To inseminate a hen, a worker must apply enough pressure to her abdomen so that her cloaca will open, allowing a syringe to be inserted into her vagina—this occurs about weekly in females used for reproduction, and more often as they age.

Debeaked turkey poults at a factory farm.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Debeaked and Detoed

Often within their first days of life, turkeys will have parts of their beaks and toes removed. Crowding puts turkeys at risk of injury—their sharp beaks and toes concern producers because they can damage the value of the birds’ flesh. Part of the sensitive, nerve-filled beak is either cut off using a hot blade or shears, or burned off using electrodes and high-voltage current. Farmers will also sever the ends of turkeys’ toes with surgical shears. Such mutilations are routinely done with no pain reliever or anesthetic.

Factory-farmed turkeys.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Unable to Move Freely

In warehouse-like rooms containing thousands of turkeys, the birds may be crowded so severely that each bird has only between 2.5 to 4 square feet of space—about the size of a hand towel. As the turkeys grow larger, the crowding grows worse. Nearly 98% of the 285 million turkeys sold in the US are grown on farms that sell more than 30,000 birds a year.

Desnooded turkeys on a factory farm.

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Toxic Conditions for Birds and Workers

Poorly ventilated and overcrowded, turkey farm facilities are commonly filled with dusty, ammonia-laden air. Such contaminated air can bring about a host of health issues—for both turkeys and human workers—including respiratory damage and irritated, swollen eyes. Amazingly, a single worker may be responsible for the care of as many as 30,000 birds, so illnesses and injuries can easily go unnoticed and untreated.

Turkeys on a transport truck.

Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Crated and Trucked Away to Die

Once they reach market weight — on average, 12 to 14 weeks for hens and 16 to 19 weeks for toms — turkeys are thrust into crates and transported to slaughter. As a result of rough handling during crating, severe injuries—dislocated hips and wing fractures—routinely occur. Transport may involve travel over long distances, subjecting turkeys to disturbing noises, disorienting motion, and extreme temperatures. These stresses, coupled with a lack of food and water during transport, contribute to the thousands of birds who die before reaching slaughter.

Factory farmed turkeys. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen

Immobile But Not Unconscious When Killed

At the end of a harrowing transport, turkeys arrive at the slaughterhouse. Although the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act requires animals to be rendered insensible before shackling and slaughter, the USDA does not interpret this law to include birds killed for food, and it does not protect turkeys. Because of this, just prior to slaughter, turkeys are most often rendered immobile (but not unconscious) by being dragged through an electrified water bath, after which their arteries are slit, either by an automated machine or by a human worker who cuts any throats missed by automation.

GIF of turkeys at Farm Sanctuary
“The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense is his life, large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song.”
-Naturalist John Burroughs

Featured Turkey Rescues

What Daniel learned from Faye and Ferris turkeys

VIDEO 1:39

What Daniel learned from Faye and Ferris turkeys

Download Audio

Transcript

So we're here with Faye and Ferris turkeys. They were rescued by a woman who had found them at a feed store. So Faye, he was looking pretty sick like he wasn't going to make it, and the woman was able to release him for free. She also convinced the feed store thankfully to allow Ferris, his friend, to come with him, so he didn't have to go alone, even though Ferris was healthy and doing OK.


Before Faye tries to bite my fingers off, I'll hide him. And that kind of sums up the relationship that I have with Faye and Ferris. I'm not going to touch you, I'm not. I'm really not. It's kind of all on their terms, and it's more of me trying to spend some time with them. And then telling me that they'd rather be left alone, which is fine.


The thing that I've learned from Faye and Ferris is that, no matter how well you get along or you don't get along, there's always room for respect and treating each other well. I think that is something that's pretty easily forgotten in the world today. If you just give someone a chance, and you try to meet them halfway, you can have a relationship, even if you don't always get along.


[MUSIC PLAYING]

VIDEO 1:39

What Daniel learned from Faye and Ferris turkeys

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