When an animal suddenly has a change in its behavior, it's always something to take note of. Frequently, it's your first or only warning of sickness. It also can indicate when things aren't right in the environment or that a baby is imminent. A week or so ago I noticed one of my hen Bourbon Red turkeys looking kind of droopy, laying on the ground with her wings spread slightly. I thought perhaps she had something, like baler twine, wrapped around her leg, so I walked over. She let me pick her right up, but there was no sign of injury or anything amiss. Still, turkeys don't normally allow humans to touch them, so I was concerned. But when I turned back from the feed barrel with the scoop in hand, all turkeys were bright, alert, and ready to eat. I couldn't tell which was "droopy hen". I was a bit relieved, since appetite is usually the first thing to go when critters get sick. The next day, the "droop" had spread. Two hens were down. Again, they would let me touch them without getting up and running away, but acted fine a few minutes later. I mentioned it to Dan, and he replied that he too had seen this going on.
As I did chores, I kept thinking about my hens. What could be wrong? Then I remembered a suspiciously similar story, involving the very same breed of turkey, in one of my favorite books- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She too, had seen this...just before the birds started to breed. Her description of toms that strutted continually since fall mirrored my own Gobbles, who struts to impress the mail lady, feed buckets, and any & everything else. The hens hadn't really shown any interest in this display, and now seemed more likely to show their own mating behavior when humans are around. Guess both sexes have imprinted on us somewhat, since we've provided them with food and cared for them since hatching. But spring is coming, the days are lengthening, and although I wasn't sure when turkeys would begin to lay eggs, the timing is definitely right. So I stopped worrying and hoped for the best. The turkeys have started to figure it out. Gobbles is taking an interest in the ladies instead of whatever might be laying in the yard. When one of the hens flew down from the roost in the pine tree into the chicken run, she and Gobbles seemed so frustrated that they were separated by the woven wire fence. It was as though they were star crossed lovebirds and he had eyes for no other hens, at least for a little while They are making somewhat awkward attempts to breed, and I'm optimistic that we'll have fertile eggs this spring.
This is hugely exciting, since we'll be hatching our own poults for the very first time. 99% of the turkeys raised in the US are the broad-breasted variety, which grow so much white meat that they physically can't even reproduce on their own. They are more of a variety that a true breed, since they cannot mate naturally. Each and every egg has to be artificially inseminated. So our biggest dilemma now is to decide if we'll take the eggs from the Bourbon Red hens to put in our incubator or let them try to sit on them naturally. I'd like to perpetuate turkeys that have a good maternal instinct, which has been bred out of so much domestic poultry, but at the same time there is a possibility the hen will give up halfway through sitting and we won't have any babies. Which might not be a huge deal to a hobby farmer or someone looking to raise their own food, but we've set our hearts on offering only heritage breed turkeys for sale here at the farm from now on. Incubated eggs would still be 100% farm-raised and another thing we would be able to do sustainably. It would cut out a cost (of purchasing poults), which is always a good thing for a business, and avoid the huge hassle it turned into when dealing with a certain mail order hatchery last year. Most likely, in the end, we'll compromise and take most of the eggs at first, then leave some to the hens and see what happens. Like the geese and peafowl, turkeys only lay enough eggs for one brood per season/year. If you take a few eggs and put them in the incubator, the hen will lay a few more, until she thinks she has enough to make it worth her while to sit on. Once she begins sitting ("going broody") she stops laying. That's it. No more eggs til next year. So snatching a few at first actually has a reasonable chance of extending the laying season and the total number of eggs.
But it is the season to begin watching for eggs of all kinds, and I can't wait to turn on the incubator and start Hatching Season 2011. Dan spotted a duck egg in the creek today, so the Pekins are beginning to lay. But I'm hoping they pick a less waterlogged spot soon, so we can collect & hatch the eggs. We didn't have ducklings last year because our male was killed by predators over the winter. We got some new ducks late last year and should be good to go. Duckings are so cute! We've also had a nearly complete lack of chicken eggs as we got rid of our unproductive older hens before winter set in. While I had replacement chicks in September, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to mature and begin laying, so I'm anxiously awaiting Barred Rock, Delaware & Ameracauna eggs to start soon. The other hens we have are more showy and not known for laying as well through the winter. Those would be our Blue Cochins & Golden Phoenixes. These birds will go broody and hatch their own chicks during the warmer months, which is fun, but we hatch out plenty in the early spring in the incubator. The longer days are a signal to start laying and I've found a few Phoenix eggs in the past few days so we'll be setting soon. (Yes, I really can tell what breed of chicken laid the egg by the shape, size & color!) So we'll be hearing the soft peep of downy chicks in another month or so, which is always amazing!