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Creating An Enriching Life For Turkeys

Four non- large breed turkey hens perch on wide fence top.
Providing perches at various heights makes a living space that is able to be used more thoroughly and offers different sights and options. Low wide perches that are accessible by a gently sloping ramp can work well for large breed turkeys and those with mobility issues. Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

Updated April 20, 2021

Enrichment is often thought of as an extra or optional provision for residents. Sanctuary workers are understandably focused on providing the food, water, and housing that is necessary for residents to live. However, we are hoping that by incorporating enrichment as an aspect of general care, the lives of residents will be enriched. This is of particular importance for residents residing in smaller, more confined, or barren living spaces. In areas that experience intense cold, the best way to keep turkey residents warm is to leave them in a smaller, coop-like space when they may normally have a larger outdoor space for foraging and other turkey behaviors. In cases like these, enrichment can make a world of difference in the lives of residents. No one likes to be bored, including residents, regardless of species!

Developing An Enrichment Plan

It is important to understand the species-specific needs of your residents, as well as to consider their individual needs. An example of a species-specific understanding acknowledges that turkeys are very motivated to forage for their food, though some have been bred to exhibit less active behavior, like large breed turkeys, who have particular health issues that need to be taken into consideration when developing an enrichment plan. This is critical, as adding roosts and certain types of nutritional enrichment could prove dangerous for large breed turkeys. 

Many studies regarding enrichment were focused on chickens, including some showing that chickens are stimulated by visual enrichment, particularly those involving movement. Amazing, right?! While there is a dearth of information specifically on turkey enrichment, there is quite a lot for chickens. That being the case, the majority of suggestions included in this article are based on informational resources for chickens. 

When developing an enrichment plan for residents, it’s important to consider the types of behavior in which you’re hoping to see an increase or decrease. For example, if you are hoping to reduce feather-picking, there are particular enrichment options that are ideal for that, such as tying a bunching of white string to an accessible part of their living space. Do you wish to increase exploratory behavior? Novel objects and nutritional foraging enrichment may be better suited in this case.

In this resource we will go into different types of enrichment and how they can be implemented at your sanctuary. The great news is that there are many inexpensive ways to provide enrichment for your residents!

Enrichment Is Well Worth The Time Investment!
We know you have your hands full managing a sanctuary and probably never seem to have enough time. However, developing enrichment plans for species, particular groupings of residents, and individuals can actually help you save time and money in the future! Residents who are provided enrichment are more likely to feel mentally stimulated, experience positive emotions, and are more likely to perform satisfying natural behaviors that can help mental and physical health. Happier residents heal more quickly than stressed individuals, and residents with enriched environments are often less likely to engage in confrontational behaviors, depending on their living space and type of enrichment provided.

The following is an example of a situation where an enrichment plan is needed for an individual turkey: “Tallulah, the non-large breed turkey hen underwent surgery recently and her movements must be limited, especially walking, for the next week or two. Setting Tallulah up in a sling or small living space and providing enrichment as a means of mental stimulation can assist in her healing. Examples of possible enrichment strategies for Tallulah include playing the radio, stringing a treat garland within her reach, adding a familiar smell to her temporary living space, and providing a television or computer screen savers.”

Sample Enrichment Plan

A graphic of notebook paper with a sample enrichment plan for a turkey.

One At A Time!
It is important to only add a single enrichment element at a time when you are first observing and learning whether a resident(s) actually finds it enriching )and for how long they find it enriching before they lose interest). Adding multiple enrichment strategies makes it difficult to get an accurate assessment of the appropriateness of the chosen enrichment. You will be better able to build a schedule when you have more accurate information.

Observations And Adjustments Are Key!
It’s always important to observe if and how residents use the proffered enrichment. Remember, it is only enrichment if the individual finds it enriching! If they are frightened by something or uninterested in it, then it isn’t enriching. 

Now that we have covered what an individual enrichment plan looks like, we will cover some of the different types of enrichment for turkeys and how they could be implemented at your sanctuary.

Social Enrichment

This one may seem obvious, but it’s important to mention: Turkeys are social animals and it’s important they have access to other turkeys. Of course, there are times when this isn’t possible, due to medical issues, flock disagreements, or sadly, the death of their flock mates. In cases like these where direct contact with others of their species isn’t possible, there are ways that you can enrich their lives during this time:

  • If at all possible, turkeys should be housed with other turkeys. If this isn’t possible, then extra steps should be taken to alleviate the stress caused by their isolation.
  • Provide visual contact with other turkeys.
  • Add a mirror (some organizations hang old CDs) to their living space.
  • Include a small amount of soiled bedding (if contagion isn’t an issue) from their original flock space.
  • Play a recording of normal turkey sounds.
  • If you have a single large breed hen, you could possibly introduce them to a flock of chickens, but would need to ensure their species-specific needs are met and they are receiving a proper diet.
Two turkeys huddling together.
         Andi and Jordan enjoy spending time together.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge

A large breed turkey being pet by a human.
Santosha is enjoying a little human-turkey bonding.
Photo: Lancaster Farm Sanctuary

Physical Enrichment

Physical or structural enrichment refers to creating a dynamic living space for residents. Structures, furniture,  substrates for digging or dust bathing, hiding, and perching are all examples of physical enrichment! Let’s look at some turkey-specific physical enrichment:

  • Add stumps, ramps, and ladders all provide different opportunities to perch and explore.
  • Cover some overhead areas to provide a sense of safety and shade to more comfortably allow exploration of the living space.
  • Add and secure branches for perches.
  • Try out more complex furniture (keeping in mind the needs of the individual).
  • Add little curtains to nesting boxes to allow the option for privacy.
  • Break up the living space with shrubs, bushes, and grasses.
  • Add dirt for nice dust-bathing opportunities.
Four turkeys roosting on perches outdoors.
The turkeys at Rooster Haus Rescue enjoying their perches.
Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

turkey hen taking a dust bath.
Ensuring there is a nice space for dust bathing can be part of an enriching environment.
Photo: Animal Place

Considering The Needs Of Large Breed Turkeys

Large breed turkeys (such as broad-breasted individuals) have been bred to gain weight in a short period of time, and spend a lot of their time hungry and motivated to eat and still retain a desire to perch and nest. You can still carefully allow your large breed residents to exhibit natural behaviors such as perching on low and wide, easily accessible perches and foraging without causing them harm from overeating with tools like slow feeders. There are also food balls and slow feeders that you can try. This enrichment may potentially provide the desired stimulation, or may not be of interest to your large breed birds at all.

Nutritional Enrichment

This is a fun one! We all know turkeys revel in scratching at dirt and foraging and enjoy an array of tasty treats. 

Here is a list of ideas for nutritional enrichment for your turkey residents:

  • Take a two to three-inch wide PVC pipe and put caps on the ends. The length of the tube could be twelve inches long or larger. Drill a handful of holes on the side of the tube and it becomes a food dispenser when the birds roll and peck at it. 
  • Another option is to place turkey food in wiffle balls. As the balls roll, treats fall out.
  • There are also food balls made specifically for chickens that distribute a small amount of food when the ball is manipulated.
  • Some puzzle feeders made for dogs can be used with supervision.
  • Hang heads of cabbage or lettuce from a string, making a tasty treat piñata! We recommend covering the string with stiff tubing or a piece of hose to prevent residents from getting tangled in the string.
  • Add a pile of leaves (be sure they aren’t toxic to turkeys) and sprinkle treats throughout.
  • String produce and make a garland to hang in their living space.
  • When temperatures are hot, add chopped up produce to a mold, add water and freeze, creating a cool treat that can keep your residents engaged on a hot day.

Check out our resource on safe treats for turkey residents!

A turkey eating from a pie pan filled with lettuce and pureed pumpkin.
Emma enjoys a little lovely holiday treat.
Photo: Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary

Turkey and rooster peck at greens placed in a cage feeder.
Nutritional enrichment can be offered in a variety of ways to keep things interesting!
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge

Sensory Enrichment

Sensory enrichment refers to enrichment that engages the senses. Arguably all enrichment engages the senses, but sensory enrichment focuses in on sight, touch, hearing, and smell. Each can provide interesting experiences for residents!

Visual Enrichment

Research has shown that chickens can benefit from visual forms of enrichment. In particular, studies revealed that chickens who have been given visual forms of enrichment exhibit less fear when they are transferred to unfamiliar environments. It is quite possible that this is true for turkeys as well.

Visual enrichment could potentially include:

  • Computer screen savers, particularly those that move.
  • Television or movies
  • Images of turkeys projected onto walls has shown behavioral imitation among the flock it is shown to. Therefore, projecting scenes of happy turkeys may help your resident turkeys feel good too. Interest in images may fade after a few weeks and thus should be changed routinely to sustain interest.
  • Provide mirrors or hang CDs around their living space. Note: Be mindful of individual personalities when adding mirrors around males. This may not be an ideal form of enrichment for them if they exhibit confrontational behaviors.
  • Place a pinwheel around their living space.
Turkey stands in front of a sign a human is holding up.
So many things can provide visual enrichment opportunities. Here, Jordan is inspecting a new informational sign about turkeys.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge

Hen looks at herself in mirror.
Mirrors can be a fascinating form of visual enrichment for residents like Bumblebee. (Please send turkey pics!)
Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

Olfactory Enrichment

Olfactory enrichment is often overlooked when considering turkeys. However, studies have shown that chickens have an advanced sense of smell, and providing chickens access to certain smells can contribute to feelings of safety. If you need to transfer a turkey to a new living space, add a bit of soiled bedding from their previous space.

Other olfactory enrichment opportunities may include:

  • Chicks have been shown to prefer smells like vanilla over garlic. 
  • Chicks exposed to geranium oil exhibited an increase in pecking, vocalization, preening, and movement.
  • If introducing new birds to an existing flock, the presence of vanilla scent may have a calming effect if both living spaces where the birds resided had vanilla in them as well.

Auditory Enrichment

Do you love a good tune? Or have a favorite song that soothes you? The same can be true for turkeys!

  • Chickens have been shown to experience reduced fear when classical music is played for them! 
  • Other studies have shown that playing a radio for hens made them calmer.
  • Natural sounds for turkeys can be soothing, but were not shown to be as helpful as music.

Rooster listens to human playing a Kalimba (thumb piano)
Providing interesting sounds and music can engage a resident (We couldn’t find a turkey pic. If you have one, send it our way!), offering variation to the usual sounds of their day.
Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

Turkey listens to caregiver read.
While Louie is checking out resident health records, reading things out loud can be a form of auditory enrichment.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge

Tactile Enrichment

To encourage turkeys to interact with their environment and redirect otherwise problematic behavior, consider adding tactile enrichment to their living spaces. This might include:

  • Tying a bunch of white strings in their living space (being careful that they cannot ingest them).
  • Adding sand or dirt for a nice dust bath can be stimulating and help keep ectoparasite infestations down.
  • Provide pools for a nice cool down.
  • Adding colorful balls (large enough that they can’t swallow them and made from material they cannot ingest) to food dishes.
  • Adding a cat toy to their living space (that they cannot ingest).
  • Placing a soccer ball or tennis ball for them to interact with into their living space.
  • Add card board boxes.
  • Add different substrates like leaves, turkey safe mulch, or fresh dirt.
  • Adding unique roosting opportunities. However, it is important to consider the needs of your individual residents. Structures that are higher up may not be advisable for senior and large breed turkeys as it could result in serious injury.
Turkey sits n a tub of water in the shade.
Proving the opportunity for a cool dip can be great tactile enrichment.
Photo: Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge

Cognitive Enrichment

Cognitive enrichment involves experiences or environments that encourage curiosity, problem solving behaviors, and learning. A number of enrichment strategies listed above also fall into this category. Puzzle feeders are great examples of this. But lets touch on another form of cognitive enrichment: positive reinforcement learning (This is often referred to as “training”, but we feel “learning” and “engagement” are better descriptions of this in a sanctuary environment.)

  • Positive Reinforcement Engagement
    • Many turkeys may enjoy interacting with their human caretakers. One way to build a strong human-turkey bond and boost cognitive functioning in your turkey residents is to engage in clicker “training” (we prefer the terms “bonding” or “engagement”). Clicker bonding and positive reinforcement are not interchangeable words. However, a clicker can be a useful tool during positive reinforcement engagement!
    • Examples of activities to learn with your turkey residents could include learning to choose a specific shape or color and rewarding with an immediate click and treat. Other examples include teaching turkeys to come to the call of their name, how to ring a bell, and into more challenging tasks such as picking a specific card from a deck, pecking at a lever to release food,  or walking through agility courses. Positive reinforcement can also be used to ease medical procedures and transfers. This infographic from Poultry DVM provides a brief tutorial on how to engage chickens with a clicker.
    • As noted in nutritional enrichment, certain feeders require a resident to figure out how to manipulate an object so that it will release the treats.
    • Providing a changing, engaging enrichment schedule will overall stimulate residents’ minds.

Focus On The Resident
It is important to note that clicker learning or play should only be implemented for the positive experiences that can be provided to your residents. This should not be used to encourage behavior that might be unsafe or exploitative.  

Take Notes

Because every turkey is an individual, they are likely to have individual responses to enrichment. When you first add enrichment items, be sure to carefully observe the reactions of your residents. To prevent discomfort from new items or enrichment schedules, consider adding novel objects to an area at the side of their living space, or in a space that doesn’t require them walking past the item to go inside, outside, or reach their water or food. If you believe one of your resident flocks or individuals may be fearful of certain enrichment, encouraging them to investigate the object while you are sitting and holding the object can help ease fears. Using food or treats to motivate them to interact with the item is a great way to start. Giving your residents the option to engage or not with enrichment items can be empowering and improve emotional states. Be sure to make notes of any reactions and when their level of interest seems to subside. This will help you know how to best schedule days to change up their enrichment and provide them with a mentally stimulating environment.

Novelty

Novelty can be enriching on its own. Making changes to the “furniture”, arrangement, placement of food, and the addition of balls, toys, and swings, can all create an interesting and enriching environment for your turkey residents. Turkeys are clever and become bored after some time with provided enrichment. For this reason, it is important to incorporate “switch it up” days into your residents’ enrichment schedules. As mentioned above, it’s important to take notes on flock and individual responses so you can properly tailor enrichment to the interests and needs of your residents. 

Building A Schedule

Once you learn more about your residents’ interests, you can build an enrichment schedule to provide varying forms of enrichment as part of your care-taking routine. This will keep things interesting for the turkeys and help provide a stimulating and happy life for your residents.

Do you have an exciting enrichment strategy you use with your turkeys? Tell us all about it!

SOURCES:

Environmental Enrichment Ideas For Poultry | Poultry DVM

Music | Poultry DVM

Familiar Smells | Poultry DVM

Colorful Balls | Poultry DVM

Mirror | Poultry DVM

Environmental Enrichment For Poultry Welfare

The Effects Of Four Types Of Enrichment On Feather-Pecking Behaviour In Laying Hens Housed In Barren Environments | Animal Welfare

Domestication Effects On Foraging Behaviour – Consequences For Adaptability In Chickens | Linköping Studies in Science and Technology, Christina Lindqvist

Enrich Your Chickens’ Environment For Better Health | Hobby Farms (Non-Compassionate Source)

Do You Need Toys For Chickens? | Backyard Poultry (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 1, 2021

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