Updated August 6, 2020
Like most animals, turkeys are happiest when they have lots of space to roam and explore, and have an indoor space that protects them from the elements. While predators can be a concern for mammalian residents, turkeys and other bird species are especially vulnerable, so it is important to keep predator-proofing in mind when designing both indoor and outdoor spaces.
Indoor Living Spaces For Turkeys
A barn, shed, or garage can make a suitable indoor living space for turkeys so long as certain guidelines are followed. Whether you are building something from scratch or turning a prefab or pre-existing structure into a turkey living space, you’ll need to take certain steps to ensure the space is appropriate for your residents. There are many factors to consider when determining how much space turkeys need; there is no magic number we have to offer. Not all residents are going to do well with the general recommendations offered online or even those offered by established sanctuaries, so you’ll need to be prepared to increase their living space if that’s what they need.
It seems very few sanctuaries offer concrete guidelines for the bare minimum amount of space turkeys need. Farm Sanctuary and Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries offer recommendations, but keep in mind that these are minimums, so you should strive to provide more space to your residents.
Farm Sanctuary– Their 2018 Farm Animal Care Conference resources state, “Turkeys who are overcrowded, just like in an industrial setting, are more inclined to fight and spread disease quickly. Turkeys need a minimum of 15 square foot per bird for living space, and of course more is better.”
Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries– In their Standards For Ground Feeding Bird Sanctuaries, which covers a wide range of bird species including turkeys (who they classify as “medium” birds), it states, “Indoor barn/shelters are large enough for all birds to have adequate space to rest on the ground, perch and comfortably move around…. Minimum of 4 sq. ft. (.37 sq. m.) of open floor space per medium bird,” with outdoor enclosures that are a “minimum of 16 sq. ft. (1.48 sq. m) per small to medium bird.”
Use these as a starting point, but be aware that there are many factors to consider when determining the amount of space needed to keep your residents comfortable and happy. Age, breed, sex, health issues, activity level, flock dynamics, climate, and type of outdoor space should be considered when creating a space or determining a space’s capacity.
Turkeys are very vulnerable to predation, especially overnight. Because of this, turkeys must be closed into their indoor space before dusk and should not be let out again until the sun is coming up in the morning. Therefore, turkeys require an indoor living space that will keep them protected from all predators while they are closed in overnight. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any openings that are the size of a quarter or larger. Weasels, for example, can squeeze through spaces as small as a quarter. Raccoons, while unable to fit their entire body through small spaces, can reach their arm through small openings and injure or kill a turkey. This means you cannot have gaps around or under doors, and additionally, any openings in the roof, such as a vent in the peak or in the soffit, must be covered. We suggest all openings that are the size of a quarter or larger are covered with ¼- ½” galvanized hardware cloth, as this should prevent predators from entering the turkeys’ enclosure. Raccoons have been known to open simple latches, so you should employ additional methods of protection such as bungee cords, a double bolt snap, or install a 3-step locking system, especially if raccoons or similar predators are a concern in your area. Open windows should also be covered in galvanized hardware cloth; a regular window screen is not enough to keep predators out. For a great infographic about predator-proofing, check out this resource from Poultry DVM.
Wooden structures can develop breeches overtime through warping, rotting, or from predators chewing their way into the space. In addition to checking for breeches regularly, we highly recommend that all wooden structures have additional layers of protection. A wooden floor can be reinforced with sheet metal, and walls can be reinforced with galvanized hardware cloth.
In addition to the typical predators that may come to mind, you also need to protect the turkeys in your care from rats. Rats can mortally injure turkeys by chewing on them as they sleep. Rats will likely be one of the biggest risks to your turkey residents, so be sure to take necessary precautions to deter them, such as keeping food in tightly sealed covered metal bins and cleaning up any spilled food. If the structure is insulated, it must be done in a way that prevents rodents from gaining access to the insulation, because rodents will make themselves a cozy home inside your insulated walls if they can! One way to do this is to sandwich sheet insulation with a layer of ¼-½” galvanized hardware cloth on either side to keep rodents from chewing it. This means an insulated wall will consist of the following layers: Plywood (or whatever material you want as the visible interior wall), galvanized hardware cloth, sheet insulation, another layer of galvanized hardware cloth, and then the exterior wall. If you opt against using this method or something similar, you will need to watch for breeches in the wall that allow rodents to get to the insulation. Never simply place exposed insulation against your wall or roof.
Concrete, wood, and dirt are common types of flooring used in turkey living spaces. Concrete provides good protection from predators without the need for additional layers of protection; however, it must be slightly textured in order to provide adequate traction. Concrete that is too rough may cause damage to foot pads, but smooth concrete will be too slippery. Non-large breed turkeys, especially smaller hens, may do fine with a textured concrete floor and an appropriate amount of bedding, but for large breed turkeys, such as Broad Breasted Whites, this flooring may be too hard on their feet and joints and may not provide enough traction, especially for senior turkeys or those with mobility issues. The addition of rubber stall mats can help provide additional cushion and reduce the strain put on their already sensitive feet and joints. Be aware that stall mats must provide good traction, even when wet. It’s also important to keep in mind that stall mats can be cumbersome to move and can make living space cleaning more arduous. Wooden flooring, which comes with many prefabricated sheds, does not provide good traction, especially when wet, so for large breed turkeys, you’ll likely need to add stall mats. Wooden floors will warp and rot, leading to more maintenance over time. Dirt flooring, while the easiest on the feet and joints, will not protect against predators, especially those who dig, and therefore must be used in conjunction with other predator-proofing methods. A thick layer of dirt can be packed on top of a concrete floor or over galvanized hardware cloth, or it can be combined with concrete trenching, which should prevent digging predators from entering the structure. Dirt flooring is difficult to clean and disinfect and must be added to as it erodes.
Regardless of the type of flooring used, turkeys will also need ample amounts of dry bedding. Straw and wood shavings are common types. The use of straw carries an increased risk of aspergillosis, so may not be appropriate depending on other environmental factors and your residents’ overall health. If you opt for wood shavings, look for “low dust” or “dust extracted” types. Aspen and pine wood shavings are popular options, and while we’ve talked to many sanctuaries that use pine shavings with no issues, be aware that there is conflicting research regarding whether or not pine shavings are entirely safe to use around birds. Cedar wood shavings should never be used because they can cause severe respiratory issues.
Perching And Nesting Opportunities
Instinctively, turkeys want to perch up off the ground to sleep because this is what their wild cousins do to help protect themselves from predators. Sadly, most mature large breed turkeys are unable to perch due to their large size and disproportionately large breast (and in some cases, also because they have been de-toed), but they do not lose their desire to sleep up off the ground. In fact, if you rescue large breed turkey poults, you will see this desire firsthand. While they are still small, poults are able to fly up to some elevated spaces and perch, but as they grow this becomes more and more difficult, and eventually becomes physically impossible for most of them. Because perching is a natural turkey behavior, it is important you offer ample perching options for your residents who can perch (such as non-large breed turkeys and turkey poults), and provide safe alternatives to residents who cannot perch that still allow them to sleep off the ground. Turkeys who can perch may be able to use the same store-bought perches designed for chickens. Just be sure anything you use is sturdy, made of materials that will not cause injury to a turkey’s foot, is easy for your turkey residents to access, and that perches are set far enough from the wall for the turkey to physically use them. Be sure to offer enough perching spaces for everyone to safely fit and for those who may want to avoid certain members of the flock to be able to do so. Keep in mind that not all turkeys will be able to fly up to a high perch; multi-tiered perches work well for larger flocks and allow turkeys to hop from lower perches up to higher ones. They also utilize vertical space well, thus taking up less floor space. Also keep in mind that some turkeys, such as male non-large breed breed turkeys or young large breed turkeys (and even the occasional mature large breed turkey), may be able to fly or jump up to a high perch, but could potentially injure themselves when they come down in the morning. In these cases, you may want to only offer low perches and ensure that the flooring and bedding combination offered will provide sufficient traction and padding for a safe landing.
Large breed turkeys, as well as some non-large breed breed turkeys, such as larger males, senior turkeys, or those with mobility issues, may not be able to use a rod-style perch, but will still need a way to sleep up off the ground. A simple solution is to provide small straw bales as roosts. It is best to use straw baled with twine rather than wire, as the wire can potentially cause injuries. Be sure to provide enough space for everyone to comfortably spend the night up on a bale. The most important things to remember are that whatever you provide must be sturdy, and if using straw bales, there should be no gaps between bales or between individual bales and the wall where a turkey could get their leg caught. Cover the tops of the perch area with loose bedding for easy clean-up.
Actively laying turkey hens need nesting areas- cozy nooks where they will feel safe laying and sitting on an egg. Very small non-large breed breed turkey hens may be able to use nest boxes designed for chickens, but in general these will be far too tight for most turkeys. It is important to offer safe spaces for your turkey residents to nest- lacking this they may try to utilize a chicken nesting area that is too small which could result in injury. Designs with removable metal bottoms could be especially troublesome, as the turkey’s weight could cause the bottom to fall out, injuring the nesting turkey and anyone below them. An easy way to provide safe nesting areas for turkeys is to arrange three straw bales to create a ground-level nook. Place two bales with their short end against the wall leaving about a two foot gap between them. Then put the remaining bale on top so that it creates a roof over the opening and overlaps with each bale. Ensure there is enough overlap that the bale is secure. Create enough of these spaces so that turkeys are not fighting over nesting areas. A few turkey hens will likely be able to share one nesting area, and may actually choose to do so even when more nesting areas are available. Pay close attention to nesting turkeys during hot weather- if multiple turkeys are nesting in one space, they could be more likely to overheat. Fill the nesting nook with lots of fresh bedding, and cover the tops with a layer of bedding as well. Pay close attention to the integrity of these bales. If they lose a string or start to bow, replace them. Keep in mind that your turkey residents may decide to use this top bale as a perch, so it must be strong enough to safely support the weight of everyone in the flock. Alternatively, you could build nest boxes for your turkey residents or you may be able to convert something into a safe nesting space. Just keep in mind that nesting areas should provide a private and comfortable space for turkeys, must be able to be thoroughly cleaned, must be free of any materials that could cause injury, and must be secured so that they cannot collapse or tip over.
While different individuals will have different thresholds for how much heat they can handle, it’s important to note that turkeys are more vulnerable to heat related issues in temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if it is also humid, and that large breed turkeys tend to be more sensitive to extreme temperatures than other breeds of turkeys. Turkey living spaces need ample ventilation to prevent health issues and also need to be maintained at a comfortable temperature. Industrial circulating fans and built-in exhaust fans can do a good job keeping the space well ventilated and cool, and keeping windows open (as long as they are covered with galvanized hardware cloth) can also help. Be sure that the exhaust fan does not create opportunities for predators to enter when the fan is not in use. In areas where nighttime temperatures remain warm, the use of a predator-proof screen door (rather than a solid door) can help keep a space comfortable overnight while also providing protection.
Some turkeys will be more sensitive to the cold than others, so it will be important to pay close attention to residents to determine what temperatures keep them comfortable. In addition to ensuring their comfort, it’s important to protect them from dangerous temperatures and weather conditions. Turkeys can develop frostbite, especially on their toes and snoods, so be sure to find safe ways to keep your residents warm and protected from the elements. In colder periods, it’s important to keep living spaces draft-free while still allowing for ample ventilation- spaces that become too humid can cause significant respiratory illnesses.
Having windows that are above turkey height or using exhaust fans can help allow airflow while still keeping the turkeys out of a direct draft. If temperatures are safe enough to allow your residents to have outdoor access during the day, the use of smaller, turkey-sized doors instead of larger doors will also help cut down on a draft. You never want to overcrowd a space, but keeping the space on the fuller side can help keep the space warm. If you have a few birds in a very large space, you may find it is difficult to keep the space at a suitable temperature. Providing extra bedding can help keep a space warm, but if your temperatures dip below freezing or are chilly and damp, even if remaining above freezing, you’ll likely need to provide a safe heat source. If you need to add a heat source, do so thoughtfully and keep fire safety in mind. Radiant heat flooring is the safest, but also the most expensive option. If you look into installing radiant floor heating, be aware that this system could cause an environment that is too humid depending on the type of enclosure you have. Typically, wood structures will “breathe” better than concrete block or metal sided buildings, which are more likely to sweat and contribute to high humidity levels. Additional ventilation may be necessary when using radiant floor heating. Heat lamps, especially those with glass bulbs, pose a serious fire risk; ceramic heat panels are a much safer option.
In colder climates where temperatures dip below freezing, you may need to use a heated base or heated bowl to prevent water from freezing. Because of the risk of fire, you may opt to dump the water overnight and provide the turkeys with a non-heated bowl of water at bed time, rather than keep the heated base or heated bowl plugged in overnight when birds are locked in their enclosure and are unable to escape in the event of a fire. The water will eventually freeze but will give them access to water while they are settling in for the night.
Outdoor Living Spaces For Turkeys
Turkeys like to explore, scratch in the dirt, lay in the sun, and forage, so be sure to provide turkeys with a safe outdoor space during the day. It is important to keep predator-proofing in mind when creating an outdoor space and to consider the types of predators in your area. A fully enclosed aviary will protect against a wide variety of predators including aerial predators and those who climb or jump. If you opt to simply fence in the space, keep in mind that coyotes and foxes can jump or climb over 5 foot fencing so it may be best to use fencing that is at least 8 feet high. In areas with digging predators, a portion of the fencing can be buried to protect against digging threats.
Though many people picture domesticated turkeys living in open pastures, if we look to their wild cousins, we can see that this is not their natural habitat. Wild turkey flocks have home ranges that can be larger than 1000 acres, and turkeys may travel a mile or two during the course of a single day. While recreating a space this expansive in a sanctuary setting is not practical, we should look at other key elements of their natural habitat and work to incorporate them into their living spaces. Wild turkeys live in diverse spaces containing a combination of open forests and grassy clearings. For sanctuaries in the United States, consider observing the characteristics of wild turkey habitats in your state (wild turkeys can be found in every state except Alaska!). Wildwood Farm Sanctuary is currently in the process of redesigning their turkey resident living spaces with a focus on creating a more natural environment. Shauna Sherick, Wildwood’s Founder and President, recommends taking time to research wild turkeys and, if possible, spending time observing wild turkeys in your area. She also suggests finding a local native plant nursery and working with them to identify native grasses, trees, and bushes to incorporate into your turkey residents’ living spaces. Familiarize yourself with plants that are toxic to turkeys, and be sure to remove them from the space. Read more about plants that are toxic to turkeys here. Additional ways to create an interesting outdoor space include the addition of turkey-safe potted plants, logs, tree stumps, and sturdy branches. Be aware that in addition to creating a dynamic space, you must also be committed to maintaining it. Through their natural scratching and foraging, turkeys can turn grassy areas into barren patches of dirt over time. Be prepared to replant as needed. When planting trees, it is usually worth the extra cost to plant larger, more mature trees rather than tiny saplings which could quickly be destroyed by enthusiastic turkeys. Alternatively, you could find a way to protect the sapling from your residents until it is large enough to withstand their attention.
Turkeys need a place to dust bathe, as this is a natural behavior and one that helps keep them healthy by helping to prevent external parasites. Their outdoor space may naturally provide spaces to dust bathe, but during periods of rain or snow, you may need to provide a dust bath. This can be something you build, or you can buy a shallow sandbox, kiddie pool, or something similar- just be sure it’s something your turkey residents can safely get in and out of. It is helpful to use something that can be covered to keep the contents dry. Depending on your soil type, you can fill the dust box with dirt from your yard or store bought top soil. The contents should be loose- if your soil is more clay-like or overly hard, it may be best to purchase top soil. Never fill dust boxes with anything that contains fertilizer.
Be sure to create spaces that provide your turkey residents with ample opportunities to exhibit their natural behaviors while still taking the necessary precautions to keep them safe from predators. Not only will this have a positive impact on their overall quality of life, it can also help promote healthy flock dynamics!
Wild Turkey | All About Birds (Non-Compassionate Source)
Wild Turkeys | Managing Michigan’s Wildlife: A Landowner’s Guide (Non-Compassionate Source)
Make A Dust Box For Chickens In Just 5 Minutes | Pampered Chicken Mama (Non-Compassionate Source)
*As of the publishing of this resource, the online care guide does not reflect the updated information provided to 2018 FACC attendees.