Updated July 27, 2020
Very young turkeys (also known as turkey poults or turkey chicks) have their own special care needs to help them reach adulthood in good health and comfort. Depending on how old they are when they enter your care and whether they have had or continue to have access to their mother, turkey chicks have diverse needs when it comes to health, nutrition, and socialization.
Intake For Turkey Chicks
When a new turkey chick finds their way to your sanctuary, it’s critical to follow appropriate intake and quarantine guidelines in order to protect your new resident and the existing flock. The turkey chick should receive all location-appropriate vaccinations (be sure to talk to your veterinarian about which vaccines, if any, are appropriate for your residents), and they should be tested for any health issues. If they are with their mother, you should not separate the two unless absolutely necessary, such as if one of them has a communicable illness or needs extra space to recover from a health issue.
Nutrition For Turkey Chicks
Unfortunately, much like with large breed chickens, not much is known about what turkeys need nutritionally in order to thrive and live long, healthy lives. Food marketed for turkeys, as well as nutrition recommendations, are almost exclusively coming from individuals or companies that view turkeys as commodities meant to be consumed. Because of this, it can be difficult to know exactly what to feed turkey residents of all ages.
Most sources state that turkey chicks require more niacin and protein than chicken chicks. However, it is important to consider that lower protein diets are usually recommended for sanctuary bird residents, where the goal is health and longevity rather than exploitation and rapid growth. According to Nutrient Requirements Of Poultry, “reduced levels of protein can decrease early growth,” and because the authors’ intended audience is producers looking to maximize profits, slowing down growth is something to be avoided. Of course, protein is necessary for any growth, including healthy growth, so the question is how much protein do turkey chicks really need for proper development while avoiding unhealthy weight gain? Unfortunately, we have yet to find enough non-industry information to offer a concrete recommendation. Instead, we will look at two different options to help you make an informed decision.
Starter Food Designed For Turkeys
Starter food designed for turkeys is higher in protein than those designed for chickens. Different brands offer different formulations with different protein percentages, but many recommendations we found suggest starting with 28% protein for the turkey chick’s first 8 weeks of life and then transitioning to a turkey grower food consisting of 20-21% protein (which is similar to the protein content of many starter foods designed for chickens). If you do choose to go with a starter food designed for turkeys, keep in mind that this food is intended for rapid growth, so be sure to keep an eye on each turkey chick’s weight and body condition, especially large breed turkey chicks. Because of the higher protein content, attempting to free feed large breed turkey chicks may result in unhealthy weight gain, so you may need to feed them frequent smaller meals. Of course, you’ll also have to take care not to restrict their diet too much in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
Starter Food Designed For Chickens
While online recommendations almost all recommend turkey starter, based on our conversations with experienced caregivers in the sanctuary community, it seems more common for sanctuary turkey chicks to be fed a chick starter designed for chickens. Online recommendations (which, again, are likely focused on maximized growth or based on those recommendations), suggest that turkey chicks who are fed a starter food designed for chickens should receive supplemental niacin and protein by adding brewer’s yeast to their food (2 to 3 cups brewer’s yeast per 10 pounds of starter food). However, those we talked to who use this type of food for their turkey chick residents stated that they did not supplement for protein or niacin and report that the chicks went on to be happy and healthy adults. If you choose to use a starter designed for chickens, be sure to use a non-medicated formulation as some contain coccidiostats that are not safe for turkey chicks. We talked to multiple experienced caregivers who were able to free-feed very young large breed turkey chick residents for a period of time before transitioning them to a restricted diet.
Scratch can be provided, but only as a treat as it is not nutritionally whole, and it may not be appropriate for large breed residents. Turkeys are good at foraging and turkey chicks can go out on grass after they are 2-3 weeks old. These should be short visits on warm, sunny days then they should return inside. At this age, they should only be allowed on land where no chickens or turkeys have been in order to prevent disease. See below for more information on how to safely provide outdoor time for turkey chicks.
As turkeys have no teeth, turkey chicks will need chick-appropriate insoluble grit to help them break down any food other than their starter food. Watch large breed turkey chicks closely to ensure they are not overdoing it, and limit their access if necessary. DO NOT offer grit that contains oyster shell or additional forms of calcium as too much calcium can result in health issues for chicks.
Turkey chicks can typically be transitioned to the same food you provide to your mature turkey residents some time between 12-16 weeks of age, but keep in mind that a layer pellet will have more calcium than a turkey who is not currently laying eggs will need, and turkeys typically don’t start laying until after 8 months of age.
Water For Turkey Chicks
Turkey chicks should always have access to fresh, clean water. Ideally water will be lukewarm- not too cold or hot. A chick fountain is a good water solution, as it is not recommended to offer an open dish because they will track through it and leave droppings in it. Another benefit of a chick fountain is that it prevents chicks from getting wet, and subsequently chilled, if they decide to get into the water dish. There have also been heartbreaking stories of chicks drowning in open water dishes. If you absolutely need to use a water dish, be sure to use a shallow dish, and try filling it with rocks or pebbles that are too large for the chicks to ingest. This gives the chicks access to small pockets of water without the drowning risk associated with a large, open dish. To prevent chicks from scratching food and bedding into their water, you can start by laying a towel underneath it, then raising it onto a slightly elevated surface.
Heat Sources For Turkey Chicks
Young chicks will need a heat source. If they are with their mother, she will be the best heat source for them! Sadly, turkey chicks often come in without their mothers, and therefore need supplemental heat. Many online sources will recommend the use of a heat lamp, but you must be aware that these come with serious risk. Not only are heat lamps a fire risk, some glass bulb heat lamps are coated with substances containing polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). At high temperatures, these bulbs can put out highly toxic fumes, resulting in Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis (also known as Teflon Flu and Polymer Fume Fever). PTFE coated bulbs (and any other items containing PTFE or Teflon) should never be used around birds. Ceramic bulb heat lamps are a safer option, but be sure they are set up OUTSIDE of the housing and at least 18 inches away from any flammable materials to prevent burns and fires. An even safer alternative heat source is a properly positioned radiant heater, such as a radiant heat lamp or radiant heater panel. For an option that carries no fire risk and requires no electricity, you can use Snuggle Safe microwavable heat discs, but you must ensure it is enough to keep chicks appropriately warm. Be sure to keep discs in a Snuggle Safe cover or wrapped in a blanket or towel, and pay attention to when they need to be reheated. Regardless of which type of heat source you use, be sure to arrange the space so that there is enough room for everyone to comfortably choose to be close to the heat source or away from it. It’s a good idea to arrange food and water near to, but not directly under the heat source so they can eat and drink without becoming too hot or too cold. Additionally, you will need to take care not to overheat turkeys in warmer weather. If you live in a warmer climate and have draft-free living space for the chicks, you may not require a heat lamp. A regular incandescent light bulb may provide enough warmth for any young chicks in this situation. Observe the chicks’ behavior. If they are too cold, they will crowd and huddle near the heat source. If they are too hot, they will attempt to spread out along the edges, away from the heat. Start off at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for newly hatched turkey chicks and decrease the temperature 5 degrees over each week until their feathers come in at 5-6 weeks.
Living Spaces For Turkey Chicks
It is important that chicks live in a draft-free living space with proper ventilation. Drafts and poor ventilation can cause unwanted health problems. Their living spaces should include soft bedding or grass. Do NOT place them in cages with wire bottoms, as this can cause serious foot injuries. They should have clean, dry bedding, but be sure not to use tiny shavings in the first week or so as they may ingest them. Never use cedar wood shavings as they can cause severe respiratory issues. You can use rubber drawer liners on the floor to ensure a non-slip surface.
Depending on the breed of turkey, you can begin providing short roosts for turkey chicks as early as 3 weeks old. However, you must take care when offering roosts to large breed turkeys. When they are young, they can fly and perch up on elevated spaces, but as they grow this will become more and more difficult, and they could be more vulnerable to injury when jumping down from a great height. At this point you will need to offer lower, and likely wider roosting areas (such as a straw bale or wide board-style perch- just make sure these surfaces are regularly cleaned). Also keep in mind that the use of straw in living spaces carries an increased risk of leading to aspergillosis, so it may not be appropriate in all living spaces (more on this below). Large breed turkey chicks may benefit from deeper bedding, but you must ensure it is not so deep that it makes walking difficult.
Once turkey chicks are a few weeks old, you can begin taking them out for miniature supervised “outings” if the weather is warm and calm, but they should not be left unattended or remain out all day until they are around 6 weeks old. Additionally, they may need to be encouraged back into their living space during inclement weather.
Social Considerations For Turkey Chicks
Chicks are social and should be brought up with other chicks when possible. They learn important skills from their mother and, when possible, should be kept together during this time. They can later be introduced and integrated into an existing flock or be their own little flock.
If you are caring for a single chick, be sure to still follow proper intake and quarantine procedures as placing them within the flock could potentially spread disease. In the case of a single chick in quarantine, you might place a stuffed animal in with them as “company”. Groups of chick that come in together without their mothers, while missing out on important developmental time with their parent, can generally be adequately cared for, though they can be more challenging to care for than chickens.
Turkey Chick Health Considerations
Turkey chicks can be particularly susceptible to certain illnesses and diseases. At this stage in life, they need time to build up their immune systems before risking exposure to disease. It is important to speak with a veterinarian about appropriate vaccinations as early as possible.
Chicks should be monitored closely for any signs of illness including lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea, labored breathing, and sinus flaring. If a chick appears to be separating themselves from the flock, this could be a sign of illness or a sign that they are getting picked on. Pay close attention to their mobility- healthy turkey chicks should walk and run without any sign of lameness, and when they stand both legs should be evenly under them.
Aspergillosis is a fungal infection that affects a number of animals, including turkeys. Turkey chicks between 5 days and 8 weeks of age are the most commonly affected, though older birds can certainly be affected as well. Signs of this infection include heavy or rapid breathing and yellow or grey nodular lesions in the respiratory tract, occasionally including the mouth. These lesions can also occur in the eyes and brain.
Clean housing and ventilation keeps Aspergillosis at bay, as well as the use of avian-safe fungicide spray after deep living space cleanings. Avoid wet housing conditions, and don’t allow an avian living space to get too warm and humid, as spores can grow and be released from straw. When keeping a space warm for chicks, it can be a good idea to substitute straw with wood shavings and ensure that their living space does not get too dusty, moist, or moldy.
Turkeys are particularly susceptible to this disease, and turkey chicks even more so. Blackhead or Histomoniasis is caused by Histomonas meleagridis, a protozoa spread by Heterakis gallinarum roundworms. Because chickens can spread this protozoa without being obviously affected, it’s recommended to house turkey chicks away from chickens or outdoor areas chickens have inhabited until they are at least 12 weeks old, as mortality from the disease is very high before this time. Affected birds may be more sluggish, have bright yellow diarrhea, develop a dark blue head (the name of the disease is somewhat of a misnomer), or die unexpectedly. Treatment typically includes an anti-protozoal, though many that have been proven effective are prohibited in turkeys. In some cases, antibiotics may be used to treat secondary infections. If you suspect Blackhead disease, talk to your veterinarian immediately for treatment recommendations. Regular fecal testing and deworming turkeys, as well as minimizing their contact with chickens, can lessen the likelihood of infection. Earthworms can also carry the parasite and infect birds if they are consumed.
Many turkeys rescued out of commercial turkey farming might be Coccidia carriers without being symptomatic, which can cause problems to their new flock or if they are struck with another disease. Chicks are particularly vulnerable. Signs to look out for include bloody malodorous droppings, thin and low appetite birds, huddling in groups, weakness, dropped wings, ruffled feathers, sluggishness, or sudden deaths in the flock, but it’s typically more difficult to diagnose in turkeys than chickens since the symptoms are less obvious. It typically affects their intestines and can be lethal if untreated depending on the strain. Coccidia can spread through dirty and wet bedding and contaminated clothing, shoes, and equipment. Good hygiene can prevent infection. Regular fecal testing can detect the disease. If detected, you can administer a veterinarian-recommended deworming treatment. Wormers can be purchased at farm supply stores in simple formulas that are added to the turkey’s water. Coccidia is not easy to eliminate, so you may need frequent treatments to get rid of it. Be sure to discuss coccidia treatments and fecal results with your avian veterinarian- they will be able to help determine when treatment is necessary and what to do if a treatment is unsuccessful.
Hemorrhagic Enteritis (HE) is a viral infection that mostly affects young turkeys (typically between 6 and 12 weeks old). This disease can cause depression and bloody stool. It has a high fatality rate, so any suspicion of this disease must be evaluated quickly by a veterinarian. There is a vaccine available to prevent the disease but it should not be administered to birds showing signs of the disease. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about appropriate treatment options and prevention measures, and always discuss vaccination protocols with your veterinarian before implementing. Antibiotics may be necessary to treat secondary infections.
Omphalitis (Or, “Mushy Chick Disease”)
Omphalitis is a bacterial infection of the navel in newly hatched turkey chicks. The abdomen of infected turkey chicks becomes enlarged and the navel will remain unhealed. The turkey chick will feel “flabby”, and there will be a putrid odor from the turkey chick. Death can occur within the first 24 hours of hatching, and there is a high mortality rate. This issue generally starts with poor incubator hygiene. If you receive newly hatched turkey chicks, this is something to be aware of. Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect this disease.
Also known as Paratyphoid, the bacteria Salmonella is in most bird intestines. Usually this is not problematic to turkeys, but it can infect humans if they eat food with contaminated hands. If turkeys suffer from salmonellosis, they can be successfully treated with antibiotics recommended by your veterinarian, but it can take months before they are free of the infection. Chicks are most susceptible to the disease. Symptoms in chicks include, loss of appetite and diarrhea. Additionally, vents pasted up with white diarrhea may be observed in newly hatched turkey chicks. This can harden and prevent defecation, causing death.
The most common cause of Spraddle or Splayed Leg is a slippery floor. If a turkey chick cannot get proper traction on the floor, their legs will slide to one side, preventing them from developing their leg muscles. Rubber drawer or cabinet mats can help ensure chicks have enough traction.
Vent Pasting (Pasty Butt)
Very young chicks are prone to a condition called “pasty butt” where feces stick to their vents, clogging them, and making it impossible for them to defecate. Left untreated, this is fatal. While some health issues, such as Salmonellosis, can cause diarrhea that leads to vent pasting, other times stress or even temperature changes can cause vent pasting as well. During the first two weeks of life, you should check their vents at least once daily, gently cleaning anyone who needs it. Be aware that chicks can chill easily, so clean their vent without getting them overly wet. A dampened cotton swab or q-tip can usually do the trick. Chicks who have shown signs of vent pasting should be checked a few times daily.
Turkey chicks are susceptible to worms just like their grownup counterparts. Sometimes the infection may be mild, but other times worms can be serious in chicks if they’re left unchecked. Be sure to speak to your veterinarian about the best deworming options and protocols for your resident turkey chicks!
When Turkey Chicks Grow Up
As we have covered, turkey chicks have different nutritional, environmental, and health needs than adult turkeys. The younger the chicks, the more protection, heat, and protein (amino acids) they need. As they grow, their downy fuzz will become feathers at about 5-6 weeks. This will allow them to regulate their body temperatures. Female turkeys will typically start laying around 8 months old.
The age at which you slowly start introducing the turkey chick to the flock will likely be dependent on personalities, diets, flock arrangements, and your set-up. In most cases, you should wait until they are at least 6 weeks old, though some prefer to wait quite a bit longer. Ideally, introductions are done in short, supervised meetings, spread over at least several days. If it is spring, toms may behave more territorially and should be closely monitored. You should watch for any signs of older turkeys “picking on” or biting the chicks and intervene immediately. Alternatively, if there is a hen who has taken to the chicks, you can place them with the chicks during their outside time. You can read more about the introduction process, here.
Taking time to consider the specific needs of turkeys as a species and as individuals will help ensure your residents are happy and healthy!
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