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Safe Cohabitation Considerations For Turkeys

A tom turkey looks out into a folliage-filled pasture.
Who’d make a good friend for Walter?

This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of November 17, 2021

Because every resident is a unique individual, it’s difficult to offer specific guidance regarding safe cohabitation with members of other species. However, there are certain species who may be more likely to safely cohabitate than others, and in some cases, there are species combinations that are best avoided entirely due to potential safety risks or care needs that are too different. In order to make responsible, informed decisions about living arrangements and social groupings for any species at your sanctuary, it’s important to consider who they are, generally, as a species; what their needs and preferences are; and also to consider who they are as an individual. Additionally, you’ll want to think about any safety risks they could potentially pose to another species and vice versa. Below we’ll discuss important things to keep in mind when considering living arrangements and social groupings involving turkeys. In addition to the information below, you’ll need to consider the specific needs of the individuals you are considering housing them with.

Social Considerations

Turkeys are highly social animals who have evolved to live in flocks with other turkeys. As prey animals, living in a flock setting offers more protection than living alone, so isolation can be very stressful for a turkey. However, while turkeys often do best when living with other turkeys, there are some important things to keep in mind when considering flock arrangements. In order to foster healthy flock dynamics, be sure to provide your turkey residents with enough space, resources, and enrichment. Boredom, competing over resources, and the inability to stay away from certain flockmates (if they so choose) can have a negative impact on flock dynamics.

Non-large breed turkeys, often called “heritage” turkeys, can live in mixed-sex flocks so long as everyone gets along well. However, you may find that males (toms) get along with each other better if they live away from female turkeys entirely. In a mixed-sex flock, it’s usually easiest to have one tom living with a few turkey hens. If you have more than one tom living with females, be sure to pay close attention to the dynamics between males and make sure females are not being overmounted. You may find that you need to make alterations to flock arrangements in the spring if turkey hens are being overmounted or if toms are getting into serious altercations with one another.

In order to avoid injury, large breed turkeys should not live with turkeys of the other sex. Due to their size, large breed toms can seriously injure both large breed and non-large breed turkey hens if they attempt to mount them. Though non-large breed toms are smaller than their large breed counterparts, they could still seriously injure a large breed turkey hen in the process of mounting them by putting undue strain on their already compromised joints or by causing deep mounting wounds. Therefore, female large breed turkeys should not be housed with male turkeys, regardless of their breed.

Because living alone can be very stressful for flock animals such as turkeys, if a turkey resident is unable to live with other turkeys, it will be important to give them the opportunity to bond with a companion(s) of a different species while ensuring everyone’s safety. Similarly, if due to spatial constraints you are considering housing your turkey residents with residents of another species, you will need to do so thoughtfully.

Further Reading
Sometimes you need to consider separating an individual from their companions due to a health issue. You can read more about considering alternative living arrangements due to a health concern here. Also, be sure to check out Creating An Enriching Life For Turkeys for enrichment ideas to utilize during times when someone must be away from their companions.

Dietary Considerations

If you are contemplating housing your turkey residents with another species, be sure to consider their dietary needs and whether or not these can be met if they are living with non-turkey residents. If other bird residents at your sanctuary are fed the same food as your turkey residents, this will make cohabitation easier than housing turkeys with individuals who have vastly different diets. For example, food formulated for turkeys would not be healthy or safe for your ruminant residents to regularly ingest. Similarly, food or mineral supplements for mammals may not be healthy or safe for turkeys to consume. There are various reasons why housing turkeys with mammalian residents may not be advisable- the significant difference in dietary needs is just one such reason.

In addition to considering what other residents eat, if you are caring for large breed turkeys, you’ll also need to consider how much other residents eat. Because large breed turkeys must have their portions managed to prevent unhealthy weight gain and obesity-related health issues, it can be challenging to house them with other residents who are free-fed, even if they are eating the same food formulation. This arrangement would require the creation of a space the turkeys cannot access where food can be provided free-choice for other residents. If you decide to try this, be sure to do so thoughtfully and to watch closely to ensure that residents who should be free-fed can easily access their food and that turkey residents cannot. A small chicken-sized door to a feed area does little good if there is a hungry turkey constantly blocking it, and it isn’t really fair to your turkey residents if they are constantly trying to gain access to food that they shouldn’t have.

​​For more information on your residents’ dietary needs, check out our species-specific Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements resources.

Housing Considerations

Turkeys are vulnerable to predation both during the day and at night, and therefore require robust predator-proofing to keep them safe. Their outdoor space must include proper fencing (both to keep turkey residents inside their space and to keep other animals out), and the addition of aviary netting will protect against aerial predators. Larger mammals have different fencing needs, and you may find it challenging to create an outdoor space that accommodates what a larger resident needs while also providing the predator protection a turkey needs. 

Overnight, turkeys must be closed into completely predator-proof housing to keep them safe. If you care for non-large breed turkeys or young large breed turkeys who are able to fly up and perch in trees, know that this is not a safe option for them overnight. All turkey residents should be closed into predator-proof spaces to ensure their safety overnight. Some turkey predators (like weasels) can fit through spaces as small as a quarter, and others (like raccoons) can reach through small spaces to get to turkeys or can open latches to get into turkey spaces. Because ducks, geese, chickens, and other sanctuary bird residents have similar housing requirements in terms of predator-proofing, housing them with turkeys will be easier than housing them with larger mammals who, even if they require some degree of predator-protection, do not require the same overnight accommodations- not to mention the potential safety issues that could come with having your turkey residents locked inside with larger residents overnight.

Won’t Larger Residents Act As Deterrents Or Protectors Against Predators?
It’s not uncommon to hear about certain species being housed with others in an attempt to protect more vulnerable species from predators. In some cases, this simply entails housing larger species with smaller species, but other times it involves specific species who have been designated by humans as “livestock guardians” such as dogs, donkeys, or llamas. Unfortunately, this practice of relying on other residents to act as deterrents or protectors is not universally reliable and, therefore, is not something we recommend. While you can certainly find folks who advocate strongly for this solution (especially individuals from the farming community), you can also find heartbreaking stories of predator attacks. In addition to the “protected” residents being harmed despite the inclusion of a “guardian” in their living space, in some cases, the “guardian” has been injured or killed by a predator because they were not properly protected either. There have also been reports of “guardian” residents going after the individuals they live with, sometimes with little to no forewarning. We believe that there is simply no substitute for proper housing and fencing when it comes to predator protection, and living arrangements should be informed by the needs of each individual resident, not the role we feel they should play.

For more information on your residents’ housing needs, check out our species-specific Creating A Good Home resources.

Safety Considerations

When considering mixed-species social groups, it’s important to consider any potential safety risks. Safety considerations for turkeys include:

Safety Concerns Associated With Larger Mammalian Species

Any time a smaller species is housed with a significantly bigger one, there is the risk of injury, but pigs tend to pose a more significant risk to turkeys than some other species. There have been reports of birds being killed in a sanctuary environment by pigs. While you may think that the risk to birds is directly linked to the pig’s size, this is not the only concern. It’s true that large pigs could accidentally trample a smaller bird resident, but piglets can pose a potentially greater risk to birds. Some of the reports of bird residents being killed by pigs involved piglets who were trying to play with a bird resident who entered their living space, which would be especially concerning for turkey poults. Feral pigs also pose a significant risk to birds. While adult domesticated pigs may pose less of a risk to birds, you should always exercise caution where possible when it comes to protecting resident lives and be mindful of the potential consequences of species cohabitation. For these reasons, we do not recommend housing turkeys with pigs, especially feral pigs or piglets.

We also don’t recommend housing turkeys with dogs. While some dogs may do fine with turkeys, a negative interaction could have devastating consequences. Additionally, as turkeys are prey animals, a dog’s presence may cause them stress, even if they aren’t in immediate danger. Due to the potential risks, even if you have reason to believe a turkey and dog will get along, we recommend never leaving them together unsupervised.

In addition to pigs and dogs, other bigger residents, such as ruminants, equines, or camelids, could injure a turkey, especially by accidentally trampling them. A turkey may have difficulty moving out of the way of a quickly moving resident who is significantly bigger than them, and turkeys with mobility issues or who are broody are at an increased risk of being injured. Furthermore, some mammalian residents may be too confrontational or playful to be able to safely cohabitate with turkeys, regardless of their size. For example, even though they are smaller in stature, a young goat kid could cause serious injury to a turkey resident if they are trying to play.

It’s important to note that turkey poults are especially vulnerable, and in addition to the considerations above, should also be kept away from cats. While cats and mature turkeys tend to do fine together, cats have been known to kill turkey poults. An additional consideration with cats is that turkeys should not have access to their litter box as consuming litter could result in crop impaction.

Safety Concerns Associated With Other Farmed Bird Species 

If you are considering housing your turkey residents with other farmed bird residents, there are some important things to keep in mind. While chickens and turkeys have similar care needs, housing them together isn’t always the best idea. Turkeys are particularly susceptible to blackhead disease (histomoniasis), which is caused by Histomonas meleagridis, a parasitic protozoan that can be transmitted by the cecal worm Heterakis gallinarum. While chickens can become ill from blackhead disease, they are often asymptomatic carriers and can spread H. meleagridis without being obviously affected. Because of this, most sources stress that chickens and turkeys should never live together. However, many sanctuaries have been able to house chickens and turkeys together without issue. If you decide to house your chicken and turkey residents together, we recommend having a discussion with your veterinarian about the risk of blackhead disease and how to best mitigate this risk (which may include frequent fecal testing and/ or routine deworming). While blackhead disease is a concern for turkeys of all ages, the risk of mortality is highest in poults under 12 weeks of age and, therefore, it’s recommended that poults younger than 12 weeks be kept away from chickens and spaces chickens have inhabited. Some sanctuaries have made it a policy to wait until turkeys are at least 6 months old before introducing them to chickens, while others feel it is best to always house chickens and turkeys separately so as to further reduce the risk of this serious disease.

The risk of blackhead disease isn’t the only concern when housing chickens and turkeys together. While female turkeys can typically live with chickens without issue, male turkeys are another story. A tom could seriously injure or even kill a chicken if he was to mount them, and unfortunately, there are reports of this occurring at sanctuaries. Therefore, it’s safest not to house male turkeys with female chickens. There have also been reports of dangerous confrontations between non-large breed toms and roosters, and since we prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to resident safety, we typically advise that non-large breed toms be housed separately from chickens. 

Similarly, if you have turkeys living with other avian residents, such as ducks, geese, or guineas, be sure to watch that everyone is getting along well and there is no inter-species mounting or fighting. While typically more of a concern with smaller birds, like chickens, keep in mind that ducks and geese have a protrusible phallus and could seriously injure a female turkey if they were to attempt to mate with them.

Risk Associated With Treatments Intended For Other Species

If you plan to have your turkey residents live with another species, in addition to the above considerations, you’ll also want to think about whether or not this living arrangement will put the turkeys in contact with substances that are not safe for them. There may be some treatments that are safe to use in a particular species that are not safe for others. Be sure to keep this in mind if using treatments your turkey residents may come into contact with. For some treatments, it may be safest to keep your turkey residents separate to prevent potential issues.

Consider The Individual

In addition to understanding who turkeys are and what they need as a species, be sure to consider the specific individuals in your care- thinking about their unique personalities and preferences as well as their health care needs. For example, while there are risks associated with housing male turkeys with female chickens, an older, more subdued large breed tom may get along fine with a group of healthy, active chicken hens, so long as he shows no interest in mounting them and so long as the group is closely monitored. However, the same tom may not be a good match for a group of older hens or individuals with mobility issues as he may be more motivated to mount an individual he realizes cannot easily move away from him.

There’s a lot to consider when figuring out social groupings for sanctuary residents, and things can get even more complicated when you start thinking about how different species will do together. Be sure to consider the needs of all species involved and think about whether or not you can meet everyone’s needs and keep everyone safe in a mixed-species group.

SOURCES:

About Turkeys | HSUS 

Potential Turkey Health Challenges | The Open Sanctuary Project

Updated on December 22, 2021

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