Ben Franklin called turkeys “true American originals.” He had tremendous respect for their resourcefulness, agility, and beauty. Turkeys are intelligent animals who enjoy having their feathers stroked and who like listening to music, with which they will often loudly sing along. In nature, turkeys can fly 55 miles an hour, run 18 miles an hour, and live up to 10 years.
But the story is very different for turkeys on factory farms: They will be killed when they are only 5 or 6 months old and, during their short lives, will be denied even the simplest pleasures, such as running, building nests, and raising their young.
Like chickens, the 300 million turkeys raised and killed for their flesh every year in the United Stateshave no federal legal protection. More than 45 million turkeys are killed each year at Thanksgiving alone, and more than 22 million die at Christmas.
Before ending up as holiday centerpieces, these gentle, intelligent birds spend five to six months on factory farms, where thousands of them are packed into dark sheds with no more than 3.5 square feet of space per bird. Turkeys are genetically bred to grow as fast as possible, and they often become crippled under their own weight.
Many people think of turkeys as little more than holiday centerpieces, but turkeys are social, playful birds who enjoy the company of others. They relish having their feathers stroked and like to chirp, cluck, and gobble along to their favorite tunes. Anyone who spends time with them on farm sanctuaries quickly learns that turkeys are as varied in personality as dogs and cats. Read our Turkey Fun Facts to find out why!
Turkeys have been genetically modified to gain weight rapidly because fatter turkeys mean fatter wallets for farmers. But in nature, the turkey’s athletic prowess is impressive. Wild turkeys can fly at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and run at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour. The natural lifespan of the turkey is up to 10 years, but on factory farms they are slaughtered when they’re just 5 months old.
When not forced to live on filthy factory farms, turkeys spend their days caring for their young, building nests, foraging for food, taking dust baths, preening themselves, and roosting high in trees.
People who care for turkeys at sanctuaries call them “natural detectives.” They are naturally curious, always checking out new sights and smells, and enjoy greeting visitors.
Male turkeys, or “toms,” are bigger and have more colorful plumage than female turkeys, or “hens.” The males attract females with their wattles (colorful flaps of skin around their necks), and tufts of bristles or beards that hang from their chests.
Turkeys are born with full-color vision just like our own, and in nature they stay with their mothers for up to the first five months of their lives. These gentle birds are very bonded to their young—in the wild, a mother turkey will courageously defend her family against predators.
Erik Marcus, the author of Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating, has spent a considerable amount of time with turkeys on farm sanctuaries. He reports, “Turkeys remember your face and they will sit closer to you with each day you revisit. Come back day after day and, before long, a few birds will pick you out as their favorite and they will come running up to you whenever you arrive. It’s definitely a matter of the birds choosing you rather than of you choosing the birds. Different birds choose different people.”