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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Bunten-Walberg

Textured Turkeys

According to the United States’ Department of Agriculture, 5.4 million commercial turkeys were killed between January 1 and July 5 2022 in the United States due to exposure to Avian influenza.  This is an astonishing number, but even more shocking is the fact that this is only equivalent to about 2.5 percent of all turkeys who were commercially slaughtered in the US for meat in 2021. Millions of turkeys are killed each year for the colonial celebrations of Canadian and American Thanksgiving.  Clearly, turkeys are deeply implicated in the biopolitical regimes that manage and control animals’ lives, and the biosecurity threats that arise out of these regimes.

In this highlight, rather than focusing on how turkeys are killed in these regimes, I want to highlight some of their richly textured physical and social lives pointing to how much is lost when they are flagged as only biosecurity threats.

The white feathered birds who come to many of our minds when we think of turkeys are actually a result of exploitative breeding from the poultry industry. In contrast, wild turkeys have dark and colourful feathers and they are adapted to living in open forests, interspersed with meadows, clearings, and water.

Turkeys have really unique facial features.  They have a variety of fleshy appendages and bumps on their beaks, heads, and necks which are charmingly called caruncles, wattles, and snoods.  Fascinatingly, these fleshy appendages can actually change colour!  They can turn vibrant red, rich blue, or white depending on an interplay of the turkey’s emotions, blood vessel constriction, collagen stores, and light reflection. Because of this, turkeys are known as “seven-faced birds” in Korea and Japan.

Turkeys are also incredibly social. 

The ecologist Alan Krakauer argues that turkeys have “some of the strongest family ties of any animal.”  For example, Krakauer notes that male siblings often have life-long partnerships, and sometimes male relatives will team up, with one male forgoing breeding in order to help his relative successfully mate. Chicks travel in a family group with their mother, and often, multiple family groups combine to form flocks of young turkeys and two or more mothers.

Karen Davis’ book, More than a Meal, describes the relationship between young turkeys and their mothers as full of connection and care.  Mothers often shelter their young under their wings for warmth, comfort, and protection and the bond between them is incredibly strong.  A.W. Schorger’s book, The Wild Turkey, describes a roaming group of mother turkeys and their young in wonderful detail:

"They hurry along as if on a march to some particular point, sometimes tripping along in single file, one behind the other, and at other times scattered through the woods for fifty yards or more. When on these scattered marches it is pleasant to note some straggling youngster as he wanders out of sight of the main flock in an attempt to catch a fickle-winged butterfly, or delays by the wayside scratching amid the remains of a decayed log in search of a rich morsel in the shape of a grubworm. When he discovers that he is alone, he raises himself up, looks with his keen eyes in every direction for the flock, and, failing to discover them, gives the well-known coarse cluck. Then he raises his head high in the air, and listens intently for his mother’s call. As soon as it is discovered that one is missing, the whole flock stops, and the young turkeys raise their heads and await the signal from their mother. When she hears the note of the lost youngster, she gives a few anxious “yelps,” which he answers, and then, opening his wings, he gives them a joyous flap or two and with a few sharp, quick “yelps,” he goes on a run to join his companions."

Stories like this one are so evocative, and they give us marvelous insight into the dynamic, relational, and richly textured lives of turkeys. Animal Sanctuaries play a particularly important role in sharing these types of stories. 

VINE Sanctuary, an LGBTQ-led farmed animal sanctuary in Vermont, shares wonderfully nuanced stories about its turkey residents. For example, VINE offers a touching commemoration of the former turkey resident, Mama T, who came to the sanctuary from an overcrowded local farm.  When she first arrived, she was unable to walk more than a few steps at a time, but within weeks of living at the sanctuary, she was able to explore widely.  Mama T’s social and curious personality is remembered in the following delightful anecdote on Facebook:

"[Mama T was] often going out of her way to meet new people or investigate goings-on. Once, she scared a contractor working inside a trailer by coming inside to see what all the banging was about. The frightened contractor called Cheryl [a worker at VINE] and WHISPERED ‘there’s a turkey in the trailer. What do I do?’ They made friends, and Mama T dropped by for a visit every day the contractor was on the property."

VINE also shares stories about current turkey resident, Pete.  He is “the eldest and most popular turkey at the sanctuary” and he enjoys a thriving social life, in part, due to his talkative personality.  Wild turkeys and human visitors often stop by to greet him.  In fact, he has a special friendship with an elder human who passes by Pete every morning on his walks.  Both the human and Pete call out to each other as part of their shared morning ritual.  Pete is a respected elder among the roosters and hens who he lives with, and, at the same time, he is someone who shows sensitivity for those who are younger and smaller than him, taking care to not accidentally harm them.

I hope stories like this help others to feel inspired to care more deeply about turkeys. Viruses like

H5N1 and humans problematic relationships with these birds is causing an immense amount of suffering and death. It is easy to lose sight of the complex social worlds that are being lost in these outbreaks. It is easy to lose sight of the complex social worlds that are being list in these biosecurity dramas.


Amanda (Mandy) Bunten-Walberg was a PhD Candidate at Queen's University's School of Environmental Studies where her research explored more-than-human ethics in contagious contexts through the case study of bats and COVID-19. In particular, Mandy is interested in how more-than-human ethics, critical race theory, queer theory, and biopolitical theory might guide humans towards developing more ethical relationships with bats and other (human and more-than-human) persons who are dominantly understood as diseased. Learn more about our team here.


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