The Domestic Turkey

Modern domestic turkeys have been selected primarily for large body size and rapid growth rate. Commercially, they are usually grown until they reach sexual maturity. For males, this is approximately 20 weeks of age, when they can weigh over 20 kg, compared to a 3-year-old male wild turkey that weighs a mere 9 kg. The large body weight means that domestic turkeys are unable to fly, in contrast to their wild counterparts, and natural mating is replaced by artificial insemination to prevent injury to females. Most turkeys derive from a small number of strains with homogenous white plumage, although some have retained the mottled appearance of the wild turkey.

Young domestic turkeys enthusiastically fly short distances, perch, and roost. These behaviors become less prevalent with maturation, but adults readily climb onto objects such as straw bales. Young birds perform spontaneous, frivolous running (frolicking), which has all the appearance of play. Turkeys perform a wide diversity of behaviors, including comfort behaviors such as wing-flapping, feather-ruffling, leg-stretching, and dust-bathing. They are highly social and become very distressed when isolated. Many turkey behaviors are socially facilitated, i.e., expression of a behavior by one animal increases the tendency for this behavior to be performed by others. Adults can recognize strangers[1] and placing any unfamiliar turkey into an established group will almost certainly result in that individual being attacked, sometimes fatally. Turkeys are highly vocal, and social tension within the group can be monitored by the birds' vocalizations. A high-pitched trill indicates the birds are becoming aggressive. This can develop into intense sparring, where opponents leap at each other with their large, sharp talons and try to peck or grasp the other's head. Aggression increases in frequency and severity as the birds mature. Maturing males spend a considerable proportion of their time sexually displaying. This involves fanning the tail, drooping the wings, and erecting all body feathers including the beard (a tuft of black, modified hairlike feathers on the breast). The skin of the head, neck, and caruncles becomes bright blue and red, and the snood (an erectile appendage on the forehead) elongates. The birds sneeze at regular intervals, followed by a rapid vibration of their tail. Throughout, the birds strut slowly about with the neck arched backward and the breast thrust forward, emitting their characteristic gobbling call.

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