The life of every free, wild turkey originates in the elaborate and beautiful courtship ritual of his or parents in spring time.  Turkeys are polygamous, and dominant males usually mate with several hens.  Before sunrise and before they fly down from their tree roosts, male turkeys engage in vocal communication designed to attract females, and females ‘yelp’ in reply.  These beautiful vocalisations are referred to (unattractively, by humans) as ‘gobbling’ and ‘spitting’.  Once they fly down from the roosts they add further drumming or booming sounds which may serve to indicate their dominance among the more subordinate males in the group.  They proceed to engage in a type of courtship dance or shuffle for females.  As is so often the case in members of avian species, male turkeys steal the show, putting on a spectacular  display for females by puffing up their feathers, fanning their tails, and dragging their wings on the ground by their sides as they ‘strut’ and dance.  Their snoods elongate and as their caruncles flood with blood their beauty is enhanced as their red, blue and white heads and necks flood with colour.  Both male and female turkeys change colour as their emotional status changes.  Females lower themselves in front of the males they wish to mate with.  The male positions himself on top of the female to facilitate the transition of sperm into her cloaca, fertilising several eggs at a time.


Wild Turkey Mating Display


Altruistic Turkeys

A very interesting aspect of the courtship ritual is the altruistic behaviour of male turkeys.  Turkey social groups are composed of a dominant male, several females, and also several subordinate, usually closely related, males.  It also appears that turkeys are not territorial, at least not within these small social groups.  So why the dominant/subordinate make up of characters within the social group?  Their mating behavior may give us some clues.

During the mating season subordinate males do not mate themselves.  Furthermore, they enable the dominant male’s success in mating several females and increase his chances of procreation by acting as gatekeeper dancers, keeping competitive males away.  This is an example of altruistic behavior.  Altruism is an act of apparent generosity in which the giver sacrifices his or her own pleasure or survival for the greater good of the recipient.

Altruism in humans is known to confer benefits on the giver as well as the recipient.  When we are altruistic towards others we feel better on a subjective, emotional level.  Our altruistic behaviour confers benefits on others in our social groups and thus we have the advantage of living in harmonious social contexts. Does altruistic mating behavior confer advantages on the subordinate, altruistic males?  Yes, apparently.

The evolutionary origins of turkey altruism make sense through the lens of the kin selection hypothesis.  Examples of kin selection include shared caring of young and sending out alarm calls to warn the group of danger which carries the risk of alerting predators to the one who calls.  In contrast to Darwinian natural selection, which favours selfish behavior, the suggested rational underlying kin selection in turkeys is that altruistic mating, which takes place between groups of males who share a large percentageof genetic material, results in the presence of significantly more of the subordinate male’s DNA in the dominant male’s offspring than if those males had engaged in solitary courting and themselves mated with the female turkeys.  Solitary mating in less dominant males results in far fewer offspring carrying one’s DNA than co-operative or altruistic mating[1]. 

Conception in Turkeys bred for Human Consumption

The turkey’s body that ends up on the dinner plates of humans has no such beautiful start in life.  Turkeys bred for human consumption have been commercially selected to be so large and to have such unnaturally heavy breasts that they cannot mate naturally.  In fact, they can barely walk.  In order to breed new turkey lives, male turkeys are masturbated by humans to extract their semen[2].  The artificial insemination process that is inflicted on females involves restraining them, putting pressure on their bodies that results in their vent opening, the cloaca everting or turning inside out, and their oviduct (the equivalent of the human fallopian tube) protruding. The semen is then inserted into the oviduct using a syringe or plastic straw syringe or plastic straw.  The human pressure on the turkey’s body is then released to allow the semen be retained by her body to fertilise her eggs.  This process is repeated every few days to maximise the breeding of young turkeys for human consumption.

The contrast between the rich and socially meaningful relationships that facilitate the mating behaviour of free, wild turkeys and leading to the conception of new turkey life and the artificial, forced extraction of semen from males and violent insemination of females that is standard in breeding turkeys to be used for human consumption, could not be greater.  The beauty of the former serves to highlight the violence inherent in human oppression of non-human animals, and our desecration of their wild and beautiful lives.

Jim Mason worked as an undercover investigator at a turkey artificial insemination facility.  His experience illustrates that artificial insemination is a violent, frightening and painful experience for turkeys.  “Artificial Turkeys” is his story, reproduced here with his kind permission.

Artificial Turkeys

A friend heard an advertisement on the radio: The Butterball Turkey company of Carthage, Missouri needed workers for their artificial insemination crews. So I went over to the office at 411 North Main Street to answer the ad and work in “AI”.

The personnel office is across the street from the turkey killing and processing plant. The building is a pre-fab type, finished inside with cheap paneling and carpeting. In the waiting room, a young white couple, 18 to 20 something years old, are flirting with each other. She is cute and flirtatious and he is cool and punky looking. There are three or four others, all 20-somethings, some Hispanic-Americans;  all sit at school-type desk chairs. All are filling out forms.  All the while, several obese women of various ages plod in and out from the factory across the street.

Everyone wears rubber boots and hair nets—men and women.  The hair  nets are big, puffy, white, oversized berets.

Someone from the office gives me an application form, which asks for an employment record and three references.  I write down that I was a dishwasher and a handyman for a while back East.

After I handed in the form, I waited for about an hour and then spoke to Anita, the personnel manager. She asked me a few questions about my situation and then told me about AI, artificial insemination, and how it was hard, hot, dirty work.  I would start at 5 AM and work eight to ten hours.  The starting pay was $6 an hour. Then Anita told me to come back the next day at 11 AM to meet the director of Live Operations, who did the actual hiring and would tell me more about the work.

The next day, I got back to the office at about 10.50 AM.  This time there was a lot more commotion. Two 20-something men have been in trouble over at the factory. One storms in and out the door obviously angry.  He wears snakeskin cowboy boots, tight jeans, and extra-long braided snakeskin belt with the end dangling down halfway to his knees… an advertisement of some sort for the size of his penis. On one side of this belt he wears another phallic symbol—an elaborate leather and beaded key chain with rings of keys which dangle down bouncing and jangling with every step.  He has long, shoulder-length black hair like Rick James, the rock star who beat up women. The other man has a similar belt and key chain, though not as long, dangly and elaborate. He is, no doubt, junior to his buddy in status and penis size. By eavesdropping, I learn that they got pissed off over at the plant and one of them punched a glass door, cracking it.  They are here to sign papers agreeing to pay for the door through payroll deductions.

The others in the waiting room look like a casting call for the rural working poor. One couple in their twenties are pudgy and pasty as the Pillsbury doughboy. She has tattoos on both lower thighs just behind her knees. He looks frustrated and edgy from all the waiting and the application forms. At one point, he storms out pulling her and the two babies along saying something like, “Let’s get out of here. We’ll  find something somewhere.” They are back within the hour.

A young mother who looks not quite twenty is thin, jumpy, angry and defiant. She has three kids, who look about three, two and one. The baby is squalling and squirming. The other two are crawling and stomping around all over, running wild. The three-year-old smacks the two-year-old, and the mother yells and smacks the three-year-old. Someone calls her into the office; she stays and minute then stomps out muttering cursing and dragging the kids with her.

More Hispanic men and women come and go from the waiting room. A cluster of Asian people—probably  Vietnamese—are huddled in the parking lot outside. There is a handful of African-American workers, but about half or more are white, mostly women, mostly young and with babies.

At about noon, Anita notices me, comes out, apologizes for the “zoo in here” and tells me that I can’t see the Live Operations man until after 1:00 PM. He is at lunch. So I go to lunch, mill around Carthage and its courthouse square, and go back at one.

Anita sends me over to see the L.O. boss across the street at the plant. He is pure aggie: tall, rangy,  and speaks with a country-boy accent. He starts by looking over my application form. I am going by “JB”.  He explains that the modern turkey business is about the “most high-technical”  of all the animal production industries.  This is because, he says, the meat turkey is a creation of modern science and industry. “It’s been out of the wild only about 100 years,” he tells me.  “The turkey is the last animal to be domesticated, and because of that wildness it tends to go ‘broody’, which means it lays a few eggs once a year and quits. We have to trick it into laying all the time.”

He explains that the company’s birds are so much bigger than the original wild turkeys that they can’t breed by themselves anymore.  So they have to use AI to get the fertile eggs that go to hatcheries to produce the chicks that go into “grow-out” houses where they are fed and fattened until they reach slaughter weight of around twenty pounds.

The man hires me to start work on the first  of the week if my drug test comes out right.

Then I am told to pee in a jar for  the drug test. Stark yellow signs all over the waiting room inform that “drug testing is a condition of employment.”  I am to check with the company on Monday to learn of the drug test results. If all is well, I am to start work at 5 AM on Tuesday morning.

Butterball is a division of Conagra Turkey Company, a division of Conagra Poultry Company, a division of Conagra, the agribusiness multinational giant.

I passed my first and last drug test. On Tuesday, I got up at 3:45 AM, packed a lunch, filled a thermos with hot coffee and roared off to the Rocky Point Farm near LaRussell, Missouri.  I pulled in at about 4:50 AM and drove from building to building looking for some signs of human life.  A row of pickup trucks stood against a concrete block building with some lights on.  I saw a few people standing outside and asked one about the AI crew.  A woman about 30 came out of the building and told me to come in and get coveralls and rubber boots. The only size available was Large—in everything.

One of the men there told me to go with DeWayne and his crew.  DeWayne, a stocky man of about 30, obviously had no time for pleasantries.  He hardly looked at me as he barked, “follow me in your car.”

We drove up and down gravel roads through thick timber to a turkey building where more pickups were parked. DeWayne got out and I followed him to the building door. He handed me a dust mask and grunted something that I supposed meant to go on inside. Then he barked again, “get ahold of this and help me take it in.”  It was the artificial inseminating machine and it was about the size of a cheap TV set.  It was  an aircompressor outfitted with dials, valves, and plastic tubes  running to a handset—a kind of a fingerless glove—equipped with a trigger and gadget to hold the “straws”—small tubes—of diluted turkey semen.   As we approached the door, a worker hustled out carrying two dead birds, which he unceremoniously pitched by the door.

DeWayne wasn’t talking to anyone.  There were no introductions to the other workers—all young, surly white men in their twenties.  All had the redneck look:  long greasy hair, tatoos, and filthy ballcaps.

We all went inside. The building was a bird-managing machine.  Rows of feeders and waterers hung down from the steel trusses overhead. Along the length of the building ran a double row of metal “nests”, dividing the space and the flock of white hens in half.

DeWayne set up the machine at the edge of a pit in the middle of the long “hen house” and turned on the compressor.   The pit was about five feet square and waist deep. Along the wall near it was a collection of wooden gates and fence panels tied together to form a moveable holding pen.  The crew consisted of six men. One man’s job was to drive about a hundred or so birds in to this pen.  Then two others—“drivers”—herded  five or six birds at a time into a small wooden and wire mesh chute which ran along one side of the pit.  Three men worked in the pit:  DeWayne, who operated the AI machine and two “breakers”, who grabbed birds from the chute and held them for him.

The grabber/breakers have the hardest job.  “Breaking” a hen is the term for holding a hen and bending her into position so that the vent or cloaca is forced open, making it easier for the inseminator to insert the straw and squeeze off a shot of diluted semen.

How to break a turkey hen:  You reach into the chute, grab a hen by the legs near her feet, trying to cross both “ankles” in order to hold her feet and legs with one hand. The hens weigh 20 to 30 pounds, are terrified beating their wings and struggling in panic. After all, they have been through this at least once a week before. The hens are very strong and hard to hold. Then you flop her down chest first on the edge of the pit with the tail end sticking up.  With the free hand, you put your hand over the vent and tail and pull the rump and tail feathers upward.  With the hand holding the feet, you pull downward thus “breaking” the hen so that her rear is straight up and her vent open.

DeWayne sticks his thumb right under the vent and pushes, which opens it further until the end of the oviduct is exposed.  Into this, he inserts the straw/tube, pulls the trigger and  clack-whoosh a shot of compressed air blows the semen solution from the straw and into the hen’s oviduct.  Then both men let go and the bird flops away onto the open end of the house floor.

The insemination machine is loaded with small, plastic “straws” about the size of a drinking straw but only about 3-4 inches long. In each one of these is loaded what looked to be about ½ to ¾ inch of semen. The machine takes the semen from a 6 cc. Syringe and loads the calibrated amount of semen into the straws. Hundreds of straws are loaded into a bin on the back of the machine, which takes them one at a time, loads them with semen, and pushes them out to a place where the inseminator takes each one with a rubber hose and then inserts it in the hen and gives her a shot.

Routinely, methodically, like a machine, the breakers and the inseminator do this over and over, bird by bird, until all birds in the house have run through this gauntlet.

The semen comes from the “tom house” where  the males are housed. Here Harold, another longhair redneck, extracts the semen bird by bird. He works on a “bench”, which has a vacuum pump and a rubber padded clamp to hold the tom’s feet. From the vacuum pump, a hose runs to a “handset” which holds the syringe body. The hose fits into a glass tube which sticks down into the syringe body through a rubber cork. Another glass tube runs from inside the syringe body through the cork and sticks outside an inch or two.

I help Harold for a while. My job is to catch a tom by the legs, hold him upside down, lift him by the legs and one wing, and set him up on the bench on his chest/neck, with the vent sticking up facing Harold. Harold takes  each tom, locks his crossed feet and legs into the padded clamp, then Harold lifts his leg over the bird’s head and neck to hold him. Harold has the handset on his right hand; with his left hand, he squeezes the tom’s vent until it opens up and the white semen oozes forth. Harold holds the sucking end of the glass tube just below the  vent and sucks up the few drops of semen. It looks like half & half cream, white and thick. We do this over and over, bird by bird, until the syringe body is to capacity.  Each syringe body is already loaded with a couple of cc’s of “extender”, a watery, bluish fluid that he says has some antibiotics and stuff.  Harold takes each full syringe body, puts in a plunger, then swirls it until the semen and the extender are mixed.  As each syringe is filled, I run it over tot he hen house and hand it to the inseminator and crew.

Facts and figures:   Each hen house contains about 3,000 hens.  Each tome house contains about 400 males, twenty to the pen.  The toms are kept about 64 weeks, by which time they can weigh 80pounds.   The toms are “milked” about once or twice a week. The hens are inseminated usually once, sometimes twice a week.

If the inseminator crew does 2 houses a day, that’s 6,000 hens a day. Figuring a ten-hour day, that’s 600 hens per hour, or ten a minute. Two breakers do ten hens a minute, or each breaker “breaks” five hens a minute, or a hen every 12 seconds. Needless to say, at this rate the handling of birds is fast and rough.

This rate also puts pressure on the drivers to keep a steady flow of birds into the chute to supply the pit. Having been through this week after week, the birds fear the chute  and balk and huddle up.  The driver literally kicks them into the chute. The idea is to terrify at least one bird, who squawks, beats her wings in panic and thus terrifies the others in her group. Thus the drivers create enough pain and terror behind the birds to force them to plunge ahead to the pain and terror that they fear lies ahead of them.

While herding the birds from the open floor into the bunching pen, one comes across the occasional dead bird on the floor. That one morning, we picked up 5 or 6 dead ones in each house.

Upon breaking each hen, in her panic she usually blows out a gob of runny shit. This within6 to 8 inches of your face when you are holding the hen across your chest, pulling her legs down with the right hand while pulling her ass upward with the left.

The crew:

These guys worked at this fast-paced rate from 5AM until 2 PM when I left. They had about 2 hours more of work to finish off the second hen house. That’s eleven hours at a stretch. They had to formal breaks. No morning breakfast, no lunch hour. The only breaks came by chance, when a machine malfunctioned or when the semen syringes were slow to come. At about 12 or 1, big, bad Dewayne got all generous and paternalistic  (after yelling and barking orders all day)  and bought everyone a “sody”.  For this  smidgen of kindness in a day of brutality, scowls, threats, and meanness, we were I suppose, supposed to be grateful and to look up to Dewayne, our kind, protective, generous leader. We got to sit outside among swarms of flies around the pile of dead birds and drink cokes for 10 to 15 minutes while Dewayne and another guy ran some errand. At the time, I asked the least hostile and belligerent guy about the workload and the pace… the no-breaks routine.  He told me that the crews are given 30 minutes off for lunch, but that this crew  (under big, bad Dewayne)  worked through their lunch break in order to get paid for the time. Imagine:  these guys worked at this shit 10 to 12 hours straight without a break or a bite to eat just to get another $3 a day on their paycheck.

Dewayne:  He looked like the kind of bad ass that if you see in a bar or a dark alley you would be wise to get away from.  From the start, he barked his order in the most mean and belligerent tone. When I started breaking hens, he berated me with every hen. When I could not get the hang of pulling the hen’s legs down and her ass up, he would put down the rubber hose, grab the bird and jerk her into position—all the while giving me this angry, threatening look that said, “Do this right every time or I will beat your dumb ass.”  His idea of instruction was to get angry and scream at me.  When I was driving hens into the holding pen, he would yell out from the pit—with all of the noise of the birds, the fans, the machine… he would yell from the pit through his dust mask. Then he would be visibly angry and nasty when  I could not hear or understand.

I put up with this for a day because I thought I might learn lots of rather secret stuff from the crews. Fat chance.  Nobody talked.  Nobody talked about anything. The few times I tried to make conversation, all I got was surly, glowering looks and a grunt or two. These guys are so macho that they don’t speak to New Guys.  If I had stayed around a while, I suppose the “adjustment” period would have consisted of constant threats and meanness—perhaps some physical stuff, or the other usual forms of male “testing” to see where I would fall in the job crew pecking order.  Their strategy was, I guess, to keep their distance from me, to stay mean and hostile until I was forced into my place… which would have been at the bottom, I am sure.

I have never done such hard, fast, dirty, disgusting work in my life. Ten hours of kicking birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, facing their pushed-open assholes, dodging their spurting shit, breathing the dust stirred up by panicked, excited birds and beating wings, breathing the turkey down/dander, flying around the pit, taking verbal abuse from Dewane and the others on the crew…  all of this without a coffee break or a bit to eat— not that I could have eaten anything among all this.

When I left at 2 PM  “to go to a doctor’s appointment”  Dewayne at his must surly and threatening yelled at me as I passed the pit.  “Be here at 5 in the morning.” ]

Yeah, right, Dewayne.  On a cold day in hell, Dewayne.  I wouldn’t miss your 10-12  hour day of shitwork @  $6 and hour for anything in the world.


[1] Krakauer, AH (2005) Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys.  Nature 434, 69-72 (3 March 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature03325.

[2] The Merck Veterinary Manual (2011) Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp., a subsidiary of Merck & Co., Inc. Whitehouse Station NJ, USA Accessed 25 October 2012