Wild turkeys are large birds native to North America. They live in a variety of habitats, mostly forests, and spend much of their time foraging for food. Turkeys are omnivores and will eat various seeds, plants, insects and worms. They investigate their surroundings by pecking and scratching, and keep their feathers clean by preening and dustbathing regularly. At night, they fly up to rest in trees for safety from predators.
Domesticated turkeys are believed to descend from the South Mexican turkey, and were brought to Europe by the Spanish who had discovered them as a favourite domesticated animal of the Aztecs.
Almost 630 million turkeys are produced for meat each year, globally (FAOSTAT, 2014). Of these, over 240 million are produced in the US and over 240 million in the EU.
Modern commercial turkeys have been selectively bred for fast growth and disproportionately large breast muscles. They are slaughtered when they are between 9 and 24 weeks of age, and may weigh upwards of 20kg.
Intensive rearing methods
In the EU, over 90% of turkeys are kept in intensive indoor systems. These turkeys are kept in enclosed sheds in groups of up to 25,000 birds and have no outdoor access.
Inside the turkey shed
A typical, crowded turkey shed (note that beaks have been trimmed)
Turkey barns are usually barren, with only food and water stations, and litter. The barns are overcrowded and often windowless, with artificially lighting and ventilation. Lighting schedules are strictly controlled to encourage the turkeys to eat more food, reduce their activity and grow fast. They are kept in very low light to reduce feather-pecking but this can cause eye abnormalities and blindness.
Smaller producers, especially those who produce turkeys for the Christmas market, often keep turkeys in open barns with natural lighting and ventilation and more space.
Intensive methods of rearing turkeys lead to many welfare issues.