As birds raised for meat, their bodies have been engineered to grow big muscles extremely fast, so they reach slaughter weight at 4-5 months of age. Their heart and skeleton can barely support their own body. When Sophie and Lucie joined our sanctuary a month after their rescue. They were 6 months old and weighed about 20lb each. In order to provide them with long and healthy lives, we needed to make some modifications to our little sanctuary. Their food and housing requirements are quite different from our chickens who were bred to lay eggs. First, we had to put Sophie and Lucie on a strict diet so they didn’t become overweight: one cup of feed per bird per day, no more. This is hard because they are always hungry; they’ve been bred to never be satiated to become huge fat birds. On the other hand, our hens need free access to their feed all day long, so it’s crucial that the turkeys can’t access the chicken feed. As we are feeding the chickens in their run, we added a smaller door to it: big enough for Poppy (our biggest chicken) to go through and small enough to keep Lucie (the smallest of the 2 turkeys) out. We offer our turkeys lots of greens between meals to fill their belly. We put the green treats in balls or hang them in trees to keep our turkey girls busy and fit.
Second, we had to build them a new house. They couldn’t live in the chicken coop as:
It was too small; the two turkeys barely fit in the hen house.
It was too high; big birds and ladders are not compatible. The floor of the turkey house should be at ground level.
There should be no perches in the turkey house; no need for anyone to break a leg!
So we bought a nice spacious garden shed that we installed in the chicken yard next to the chicken coop. We installed a temporary fence for a couple of weeks so the turkeys and chickens could get to know each other without having any physical contact (see how to introduce new chickens). Once together, the turkeys pecked at some chicken toes but stopped after the chickens let them know that they were not tasty treats. The chickens quickly learned not to be in the way between the turkeys and their food. Walle the newest chicken at the time bonded right away with them and decided it was cooler to hang out with the big girls :)
Turkeys are really like big chickens. They are super social, extremely curious, and a little mischievous too. They are also like feathered puppies, following us around, and trying to be helpful when we cleaned their house or tinkered in their yard. They would look in our pockets to see if there was anything edible. Like chickens they love to dust bathe and nap in the sun. And because they are bigger, they dig bigger holes and also make bigger poops! They are a fantastic alarm system. They bark and fluff up when they see a predator. They alert us of the presence of hawks and cats in the yard, and thus avert possible attacks on the chickens. One day, Lucie didn’t come running for her meal. She was all puffed up with her wings and tail down, her head was gray, and she appeared lethargic... All signs that something wasn’t right with her. As with chickens, you need to act fast when your bird is sick. One of the challenges with turkeys is that not all avian vets know how to treat them. So we went to Dr. Speer at the Medical Center for Birds. It’s an hour and a half away, but he is the most expert vet in our area who is willing to treat “food animals” as he would treat pets. Lucie stayed a week at the hospital and we almost lost her. She had blackhead disease that is caused by bacteria common in chickens’ guts but that can be fatal to turkeys if ingested. And our always-hungry turkeys had most probably eaten chickens’ poop... The only way to prevent that from happening again was to separate the chickens and the turkeys, so we moved the turkeys to another fenced area in our yard. We couldn’t move their house so we are walking them to and from it every morning and evening. We added a dog house in their new area to act as their nest. It took some adjustment, especially for Walle who lost her two best friends, but the new setup is working well for all. We also added a big mirror in the turkey yard as we found out that they love spending hours admiring themselves. Turkeys are just as awesome as chickens.
PS: If you are interested in providing a forever home for birds bred for meat like turkeys or Cornish breeds, here are two very good care sheets from Farm Sanctuary: