By Contributing Writer, Stacy Benjamin, 5RFarm
It’s an annual tradition that I look forward to every year – waiting for a turkey hen to go broody in the spring so she can raise up a batch of babies for us. We raise heritage Narragansett turkeys, and every year several of them go broody, but I don’t let just any birdy hatch eggs. We have a small spare coop in the turkey yard that we keep empty all year, and when spring comes around a couple of the turkeys will start laying eggs in it. It’s the perfect space for raising little ones because we can close up the coop to keep everyone safe at night. There are a few turkey hens that will usually decide to go broody in a less than ideal spot, sometimes in the relative open in the tall grass where predators could easily get them or underneath the main coop where access for me is difficult, so I don’t let those ladies keep their eggs for hatching.
Broody turkeys can be fiercely protective of their eggs, and even more so of their poults (turkey chicks are called poults). It makes it hard to socialize the little ones when they hatch, and as a result, turkeys that are raised by a momma, turkey tend to be more wild and skittish and don’t like to be handled as poults or as adults.
This year a couple of turkey hens went broody in the spare coop at the same time. One was of the typical fierce variety, but the other hen was much more tolerant of my daily visits to the coop to collect eggs, and so she was the hen I selected to raise poults this year. I have occasionally allowed two turkey hens to share the broody nest, and while I have had that be successful, I have also had years where it did not go well at all. So now I prefer not to have more than one turkey on a nest when hatching poults. Once I was certain that my preferred turkey momma to be was truly committed to being broody, I kicked the other turkey hen out of the coop, gave the nicer turkey 16 eggs, and put up a temporary fence around the coop to keep the other turkeys and chickens from going in the coop to lay eggs or disturb the nest.
It takes turkey eggs 28 days to hatch, and everything went well for the first two weeks. After that, every couple of days I started noticing that an egg would disappear or get cracked in the nest. A couple of times I saw the broody turkey leaving the nest with a cracked egg in her beak, and my best guess is that when she would accidentally crack an egg while incubating it she would carry it out of the nest to avoid it breaking and contaminating the nest. By the time hatching day rolled around she was down to 10 eggs. We put a small camera in the corner of the coop so that we could see how the hatching went from inside the house without disturbing her. By the day after the date, the eggs were due to hatch, I could see that things were not going that well. It looked like she only had two poults under her, and I could see a lot of unhatched eggs. By two days after the hatch date, I could see that she had moved off of the nest.
I went into the coop to check the unhatched eggs. I could tell that most of them were either not fertilized or had stopped developing, but one egg was barely pipped (meaning there was a small opening in the shell, and the poult was starting to hatch). I put the pipped egg back under her and continued to watch her on the coop camera for the next couple of hours. She kept leaving the pipped egg, even after my repeated efforts to put it back under her.
I knew I had to do something because it was likely that the poult wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t able to hatch safely under momma, where her feathers help to maintain the proper humidity for hatching and the proper temperature for keeping the newly hatched poult warm while it dries off and rests from the hard work of hatching. I went back outside to retrieve the egg, and I saw that a second egg was also barely starting to hatch. I brought both eggs inside the house.
If I had an incubator I would have put the eggs in the incubator, where the proper humidity and temperature could be maintained and they could hatch naturally which would be the safest thing to do. But since I don’t have an incubator, and the eggs both had started to hatch and the membranes were starting to dry out (meaning that the poults could easily get shrink-wrapped and would then be unable to break through the membrane), I very gently started chipping away small pieces of eggshell with my finger to help the poults hatch. The first one that I helped to hatch I did not have a good feeling about. There was some unabsorbed yolk sac and more blood than there should have been at the umbilical cord attachment location than there would be if the poult was fully developed. The poult seemed very weak and was very quiet. I set up a brooder to keep her warm, and I went to work on the next one. The second poult that I helped to hatch was much stronger and was peeping almost constantly throughout the approximately 15 minutes that I took to slowly help her hatch. I put her in the brooder with her sibling to rest and dry off. I spent the next few days watching them almost constantly. They became known as Sleepy and Peppy. I do want to emphasize that helping chicks and poults hatch is not something to be taken lightly. It may not have a good outcome, and there may also be a reason that sadly some chicks and poults perhaps were not meant to hatch. But as I said, I felt that I needed to help these little ones, and I did my best to help them hatch slowly and carefully.
They were both a bit weak and unsteady on their feet for the first several days. I put powdered vitamins and electrolytes in their water, and I provided them with a high protein game bird starter and encouraged them to eat and drink many times throughout the day by tapping my finger in the food and water dishes, as a momma hen would do. After about a week, they were much stronger and they had become very active in their brooder. It was time for them to rejoin their momma outside if they were to have a chance at becoming part of the flock. I snuck Peppy (being the stronger one) outside first, and I put her under momma after dark one night. I was a bit worried that night because momma seemed a bit restless and kept pecking her wing as if she knew something wasn’t quite right under there, but thankfully Peppy made it through the night and was accepted into the flock. I was more concerned about Sleepy being able to join the flock because she still seemed not 100% right at times, so I brought her outside in my jacket pocket during the day, and I snuck her into the turkey yard when momma wasn’t looking and she integrated just fine. Sadly, we lost Sleepy just a few days later. One morning I could see she was clearly in distress, so I brought her back inside and put her in the brooder, but she passed within the hour.
Little Peppy has grown into a strong and healthy little lady. She is such a joy to me, and she comes running up to me for lap time every time I go down to the turkey yard. I have another friendly turkey hen, Pumpkin Pie, that I had in a brooder in the house for a week after she was rejected by her momma after hatching a few years ago. Pumpkin Pie has taken on an auntie role with the new turkey family. Having little ones on the farm is always a wonderful experience, and this year it’s been especially sweet.