A turkey’s life expectancy depends on various factors, such as whether they are wild or domesticated, predation, illness, diet, and most importantly, their environment. If a wild turkey’s natural habitat has all the required resources close by, they’ll likely live for a long time, but if they must range to gather food, their lifespan average will decrease.
The same can be said for domesticated turkeys: If they live in a comfortable, resource-rich habitat with constant access to nutritious food, they’ll live far longer than a bird with a poor diet and unsuitable enclosure.
With these factors in mind, let’s look at the average life expectancy of turkeys, both in the wild and in captivity.
What’s the Average Lifespan of a Turkey?
In the wild, the average life expectancy of a turkey is roughly 3–4 years, but they have been known to live for over a decade at times. This shorter lifespan is largely the result of predation, but habitat also has a large part to play.
Depending on the breed, turkeys in captivity can easily live for 10–12 years if properly cared for, but if raised for meat production in factory farms, they are typically slaughtered at 5 or 6 months old.
Why Do Some Turkeys Live Longer Than Others?
Let’s take a look at the factors that affect the lifespan of a turkey.
Nutritional intake will dramatically affect the lifespan of a turkey. In the wild, turkeys have a fairly varied diet that includes various nuts, seeds and grasses, wild fruits like berries, insects, and even small reptiles like lizards, and their diet is relatively high in protein. In captivity, turkeys need a large amount of protein too, especially when they are growing. Captive turkeys need access to pasture and range to stay healthy, and as much as 50% of their diet comes from grasses, with the rest coming from pelleted feed.
Without a healthy, balanced diet that’s fairly high in protein, similar to what they’d eat in the wild, a turkey’s health will suffer, and they’ll have a shorter lifespan as a result.
2. Environment and Conditions
In the wild, turkeys are subject to predation, disease, and hunting, so their lifespan is relatively short. The more that a turkey needs to range for access to resources, the more subject they are to these factors. If a turkey in the wild lives in an area where they have close access to food, they don’t need to roam and thus, live more sheltered lives.
In captivity, turkeys must have plenty of space, access to pasture, and the ability to free range to stay healthy and happy. If they live comfortably with loads of space and are free from stress and disease, they can easily live for up to a decade.
Comfortable housing plays a large part in the mental and physical health of domesticated turkeys. Their housing needs to be spacious, clean, warm, and as free from external stress as possible. With plenty of feed and water, turkeys can handle cold temperatures fairly well, but temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit can quickly result in heat exhaustion. Make sure that your turkey’s housing is well ventilated and that they have access to shade and water to keep them cool in hot weather.
If turkeys eat an unhealthy diet or are overfed, they can quickly gain excess weight, which can have a detrimental result on their overall health. The extra weight puts strain on their legs and wings, as well as on their organs, and it can result in disease that will reduce their lifespan. Likewise, underweight or malnourished turkeys are susceptible to disease and extreme temperatures.
In the wild, female turkeys, or hens, are more susceptible to predators. Turkeys tend to roost in trees to avoid predators, but females nest on the ground for up to 28 days waiting for their eggs to hatch and another 2–4 weeks while their poults are learning to fly. Females are thus more exposed to predators than males, resulting in a lower life expectancy average for hens. In captivity, sex has little effect on life expectancy.
Genetic factors can affect a turkey’s lifespan. Poor breeding and gene selection can result in birds with mild walking disabilities caused by hip or foot structure deformities, which has a mild but noticeable effect on their lifespan. This does not apply in the wild, though.
The Four Life Stages of a Turkey
Like all birds, a turkey’s lifespan begins in the egg, which generally takes about 28 days to hatch. A hen may lay between seven and 14 eggs in a clutch, usually at the beginning of summer, and typically lays her eggs on the ground in a nest made from dead leaves and vegetation. The hen solely cares for the eggs, and the male turkey, or tom, doesn’t help at all.
Related Read: Do Turkeys Lay Eggs? Do We Eat Turkey Eggs?
When a turkey egg hatches, it’s known as a poult, not a chick. The poult must learn from the hen to find food and learn to eat quickly. They can typically walk only hours after hatching. Poults generally leave the nest within 24 hours and are thus highly vulnerable to cold weather and predators like raccoons, foxes, and other large mammals, but they typically stay under the protection of their mothers. Within 14–30 days, poults can fly short distances and begin to roost in the safety of trees with their mother hen.
As the summer months progress, hens and their poults will typically begin to join together in larger and larger flocks, sometimes resulting in flocks of up to 200 birds. If turkeys are in higher elevations, they will typically migrate at this time to lower elevations to avoid the winter cold — the number-one killer of wild turkeys.
By the time winter is over, juveniles have turned to adults, and these large flocks begin to break up. Young males will begin to establish their own breeding territory, while mature males will return to their breeding areas, and hens will go in search of males to breed with. Males tend to stick to a small radius within their breeding area, while hens will travel many miles in search of a male. Once she finds a good breeding site, she may use it for life.
How to Tell Your Turkey’s Age
The age of a turkey can usually be judged by looking at their wing and tail feathers. On adult turkeys (male or female), their outermost wing feathers will have rounded ends with white bars extending all the way to the end, while juveniles will have sharp ends with white bars stopping well before the end.
The tails of adult turkeys (male or female) will have feathers that are all the same length, giving the tail an overall rounded appearance. With juveniles, the central tail feathers will extend out around the rest of the tail.
Turkeys in captivity can easily live for 10 years or more if they are cared for properly, but in the wild, they have an average lifespan of 4 or 5 years, depending on their environment. Since hens nest on the ground, they are more susceptible to predation and thus have a shorter-than-average lifespan overall.
Featured Image Credit: Jim Cumming, Shutterstock