I walked in on something the other day.
It was turkey sex.
Oops- did I just blurt that out without warning?
Okay, here’s a disclaimer. You must be 18+ to read this post. Or at least have had “the birds and the bees” talk before you go any further. No, there aren’t any risqué pictures or pornographic descriptions. But let’s just be up front and say that this is a post about reproduction at it’s most basic level.
So. There we were. It was awkward for all of us.
I had just finished my morning routine in the barn and entered the turkey pen to refill their water bucket and make sure that everything was okay. I do this everyday- smash out the ice that has frozen overnight and pour the remainder of my 5 gallon pail full of water back into it.
I was thinking that it was strange that none of the turkeys were out and about, as the tom typically greets me at the door, strutting his stuff, with the two ladies not far behind. I had barely staggered into the shelter when I noticed them. They were on the ground, just beyond reach of the morning sun’s rays beaming in from the east. The tom was perched atop one of the hens, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. The hen was about as flat as she could get with almost 30 lbs. of poultry on top of her 15 lb. frame.
Now- before I go on, you must know that this is not a regular sight on the farm. Turkeys are not as prolific as chickens (or rabbits, or goats, or just about any other farm animal.) They come into season only once per year and are much more private in their “activities” than other animals. In fact, the Broad Breasted White turkeys that are raised on commercial farms are too large to physically reproduce at all, and must be artificially inseminated. There is visible sexual dimorphism even in wild turkeys, and the females are sometimes injured when a much heavier male attempts to mount a smaller female. We’ve had Standard Bronze turkeys for several years now, and one of the reasons we like this breed is because they can reproduce naturally. But making baby turkeys is no easy task. We made it all the way through breeding/nesting/hatching last year, which means that there was obviously some successful reproduction going on behind the scenes, but I had not witnessed it first hand.
I didn’t know what to do. Continue with my chores as if I hadn’t seen anything? Slowly back away and leave them to it? Pull up a seat and peep on our tom? But they still needed water. And hey, this was exciting stuff- I don’t care how weird it sounds for me to admit that I was curious about how it all went down.
So I froze. I stood very still, not quite making eye contact with either of them, even when they looked back several times to see if I was still there. The tom continued stepping back and forth on the hen’s back, making some slightly worried noises, almost as if he was fretting about how to continue. This went on for a good five minutes, and I was starting to wonder if the hen was able to breathe alright under all of that weight. As much as I wanted baby turkeys, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt in the process.
It seemed pretty obvious that this was new to them. These turkeys were born last spring and had never gone through a breeding season before. The courtship was done, the time had come, and neither seemed to know what to do next. Now it was getting really awkward.
I figured that maybe I was giving them stage fright, and decided to be on my way. I swapped out the water as quietly as I could and started to back out of the shelter.
And then…he did it. He left his contribution to the next generation atop her back- where there was no chance of the sperm ever meeting up with a developing egg. Ever.
Was it a height problem? An anatomy problem? An inexperience problem? I don’t know. But I do hope they figure it out on their own. Artificially inseminating a turkey is not on my to-do list.
Since then I’ve been making lots of noise when I approach the pen. “Hello! It’s just me…here to change your water! Hope I’m not interrupting anything…” I haven’t had any other awkward moments since.
But, there was a little glimmer of hope this week. A single egg lay in the corner of the shelter, behind an old window. The light shone through the glass, as if to highlight this first egg as a sign of fertility and potential success. We added some straw to that corner of the shelter and hoped that it would encourage her to return. I found another egg there today. Time will tell if these eggs are fertile, if the hens become broody, and if we will have baby turkeys this spring, after all.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to give the tom a knowing wink and an encouraging nod each time I exit the pen.