Birth

After mating females seek out good nesting spots.  They lay an egg per day until there are approximately twelve to fourteen eggs in the shallow nest, camouflaged by the woody vegetation of their habitat.  Turkeys, like chickens and other birds, regard their eggs as very precious; they are, after all, their future children.  They take very good care of them, sitting on them to maintaining temperature and humidity at optimum levels for 28 days.  They carefully turn the eggs, usually on a daily basis. It is suggested that this prevents the developing turkey from sticking to the egg shell.  Like chickens and other members of avian species, turkey mothers and their young communicate vocally while the young are still in egg form, prior to hatching.  The young make ‘peep’ sounds and their mothers reply in what sounds to humans like ‘yelping’.  This obviously fosters a deep sense of recognition that serves to strengthen the mother-child bond after hatching.

The young turkeys hatch out over a twenty four hour period.

For want of a better description from a human perspective I have included an excerpt here from Joe Hutto’s book, Illumination in the Flatwoods:  A Season with the Wild Turkey.  Hutto incubated two clutches of wild turkey eggs that had been abandoned by hens who were frightened off their nests in the North Florida flatwoods.  Hutto kept a daily log during the time he spent with the turkeys from their initial stages of being as eggs.  Here is his account of the birth of turkeys:

May 10, Friday

At 5:00 P.M. I enter the incubator for conversation and notice a small hole in the upper surface of one egg in clutch #2. A small hole, the size of a pinhead, but on close examination I see the movement of what appears to be the tip of a tiny wild turkey bill. I turn off the fan in the incubator, and as I talk to the eggs, I can hear faint peeps coming not only from the pipped egg but distinctly from others as well. In fact, as I speak softly and make soft yelping sounds, a small chorus of peeping wells up from the eggs, and then slowly dies down, as if they had grown tired….

Eventually the pipped egg becomes active again. Three hours have passed since I first noticed the activity in this egg. I turn off the fan and begin talking and making light yelping noises. The little turkey responds with peeping and attacks the eggshell with a bite on the shell and a movement of the head that he repeats in the same way over and over again. Gradually, a uniform line begins to develop that seems to be confined to a particular latitude, approximately one-third of the way from the larger end of the egg. The hatching activity is punctuated with rest periods lasting only a minute or two. Often, it seems that he resumes hatching in response to my vocalizations. At last, the end of the egg falls away, hinged by only a small piece of membrane. The little turkey pushes at the door he has created and scrambles free of the egg. The entire process has taken fifty-five minutes.

 This new arrival struggles awkwardly with his newfound freedom. He is wet, and gravity seems to be pulling in every direction while an untested equilibrium attempts to establish the correct placement of head and feet. For a moment the little wild turkey lies motionless and helpless, striving to catch his breath. I remember to make a sound. Speaking very softly, just above a whisper, I make a feeble attempt to console him in what seems to be a desperate and confusing moment. Instantly, he raises his shaking wet head and looks me square in the eyes. In that brief moment I see a sudden and unmistakable flash of recognition in the little bird.

Something completely unambiguous transpires in our gaze, and I am certain that the young turkey absolutely knows who I am. I am totally disarmed as the little creature struggles across the towel, never interrupting his gaze, and eventually presses himself against my face, which awaits him at the edge of the shelf. Gradually, he makes himself comfortable, his peeps and trills subside, and I realize that something has also moved inside of me. (19–20)[1]

‘Poults’ as turkeys are known in their early childhoods, depend on their mothers to care for them, keep them warm, safe from predators,  form close social bonds with them, and teach them how to fend for themselves in the wild.  For the first month after hatching the young turkeys shelter under the warmth and safety of their mothers’ wings at night, and at times during the day too.  At four weeks of age they are able to fly onto the branches of trees.  They are very social and spend their days playing with their siblings and their mother.  As with most animals this play serves an important function in social learning.  William Healy, a wildlife biologist, describes the behaviour of young turkeys as they try to protect a piece of food they have found from their siblings who chase them trying to take it from them, as having ‘the practical effect of transferring information about food sources among flock members.’ [2]

Turkeys stay with their mothers for the first five months of life.  Healy describes his observations of them as follows:

‘If a poult began peeping, the hen would increase the volume and rate of yelping.  If peeping continued, the hen would move toward it.  Hens would run toward shrieking poults.  As poults became tired or cold, they would give low-volume peep calls.  Hens would respond by pausing and calling.  If several peeping poults approached, the hen would crouch to brood and poults would come to her’  (Healy, in Davis, K (2001) P139).

 

The Birth & Childhood of a Domesticated Turkey

Birth and infancy for domesticated turkeys are a far cry from the beauty, liberty and love experienced by free, wild turkeys.

Domesticated turkeys are artificially hatched in enterprises known as hatcheries.  Fertilized eggs are brooded and hatched in metal, artificial incubators instead of under their loving, communicative and protective mothers.  Once hatched, instead of meeting the eyes of their devoted mothers on whom they would have imprinted, they are tossed from metal trays onto a mechanical conveyor belt with thousands of their comrades to be mechanically sorted from the shells from which they have hatched.  This is a terrifying experience for the hatchlings, with good reason.  Many of them, mercifully, do not survive beyond this point.

Turkey chick tossed from trays during sorting

Figure 1 Turkey falling into sorting equipment. Courtesy of All Creatures.Org

They are roughly handled whilst being sorted according to sex, and those who are injured, regarded as surplus, or who fall from the equipment are dumped into plastic bags.  Many of them die slow, deaths in excruciating pain.  Nothing justifies inflicting pain on another sentient being that we ourselves would find unbearable.  In their capacity to suffer, scientific evidence indicates that a turkey infant suffers just as much as a human infant.

The following description illustrates the torture that these newly born infants are subjected in order that their bodies grow to be consumed by humans:

“Very few animals go through the stresses of poults [baby turkeys] in their first three hours of life. They are squeezed for sexing, thrown down a slide onto a treadmill, someone picks them up and pulls the snood off their heads, clips three toes off each foot, debeaks them, puts them on another conveyer belt that delivers them to another carousel where they get a power injection, usually of an antibiotic, that whacks them in the back of their necks. Essentially, they have been through major surgery. They have been traumatized. They don’t look very good. . . .”

– Dr. William E. Donaldson, North Carolina State University

Turkey infants are debeaked and detoed in order to reduce the injuries that are inevitable in the overcrowded, stressful living conditions that they will endure for the weeks during which they are alive and growing.   Most of the turkeys used by backyard, free-range and organic producers originated in these hatcheries and were subjected to these mutilations.

Mutilated Infant Turkey

Figure 2 Debeaked and Detoed Turkey     Infant Photo courtesy of All Creatures.org

Ian J.H. Duncan, a professor of Poultry Ethology at the University of Guelph in Canada, says “the idea of beak trimming being a short-lived discomfort for the bird may be far from accurate. The short and long-term changes in behaviour, particularly the substantial decrease in activities involving the beak and the increase in inactivity particularly in the first week after the operation, suggests that the birds are suffering severe pain.”

 

Live infants disposed of in plastic bags

Figure 3 Disposed of in plastic bags     Photo courtesy of All.creatures.org

Following their ordeal at the hatchery, infant birds are packed like inanimate objects and shipped to producers to be reared as human food.

Further information on the suffering we impose on the children of other species is contained in the following description from someone who was employed at a turkey hatchery:

A Washington-based animal-rights group plans a national news release today challenging the practices of a leading N.C. turkey hatchery as inhumane.

Compassion Over Killing, a nonprofit animal-protection group, has posted videos on its Web site (www.cok.net) shot by an investigator who worked at a hatchery owned by Goldsboro Milling Co. The videos involve turkeys being hatched for this week’s holiday. Since October, the company has been a corporate affiliate of Butterball LLC, and its turkeys are sold under the Butterball name

The employee, who worked at the hatchery for three weeks in June and July, documented newly hatched turkeys suffocating in plastic bags, being mangled by machinery and being dumped into the same disposal system used for their discarded eggshells, said the group’s executive director, Erica Meier. “From the very first day of their lives, these chicks endured unimaginably abusive treatment,” she said.

Nick Weaver, general manager of Sleepy Creek Farms, which oversees the hatcheries of Goldsboro Milling, said the number of baby turkeys — called poults — who die by the methods the group documented is minimal.

“I like to get every single poult that’s viable out of these hatcheries and to a farm,” he said. “Everything they’re claiming injures my bottom line.”

Each poult is worth roughly $1.10, Weaver said. He estimated that of the roughly 75,000 poults processed each day at the company’s hatcheries, about 20 accidentally die or are destroyed because they are not viable.

Occasionally, some poults are destroyed because they are considered surplus, and suffocation is one method accepted under industry guidelines, he said.

Another industry-accepted killing method is to send them through the same pneumatic tubes used to dispose of their eggshells, where they are instantaneously killed by a high-speed impact, he said. The guidelines were developed in compliance with both state and federal regulations, he added.

“To portray it as this horrible, sinister … situation is just not fair, just not accurate,” Weaver said.

Meier said the videos show that the numbers of destroyed poults are at least in the dozens each day.

The group’s news release does not allege that any of the hatchery’s practices is illegal.

They are instead urging that consumers halt the practices by not eating turkey on Thursday. “Each one of us can give turkeys something to be thankful for this holiday season by simply leaving them off our plates,” Meier said.[3]

 

Video evidence of this investigation is available here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGJryC4XIdo

Further information available on:

http://www.cok.net/camp/inv/turkeys06/

http://www.cok.net/camp/inv/turkeys06/slideshow/

http://www.all-creatures.org/anex/turkey.html



[1] Davis, K (2001) More Than A Meal:  The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality.  Lantern Books:  New York.

[2] Healy, W.M. 1992. Behaviour. in J.G. Dickson (editor) The wild turkey. Biology and management, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg.