Reporter 444, 6 December 1999

Turkeys with trinkets facing Christmas with a smile

Farmyard turkeys are being helped to live happier lives by University biologists giving them toys to play with. Playful perches and dangling CDs in their pens, they have discovered, distracts the birds and stops them pecking each other.

"Turkeys can be aggressive birds and they do quite a bit of damage with their beaks," said animal behaviour researcher Michael Forbes. "By reducing this pecking we are improving the welfare of farmed birds, which should then increase consumer confidence in the way turkeys are reared."

Over ten million turkeys are destined for British dinner plates this Christmas. Most are farmed in a series of indoor pens and farmers currently use dim lighting to curb the birds’ aggressive instincts.

Professor Forbes’ research, carried out with postgraduate student Rachel Crowe, has shown that suspending shiny CDs among turkeys greatly reduces peck-injuries. Almost three times as many birds were picked on in pens without the distractions. Building a series of low-level perches for the turkeys to hop on and off also kept them too busy to fight.

"These environmental stimuli divert the attention of aggressive turkeys away from the other birds and means that stronger lighting can be used," said Professor Forbes. "Although we can’t guarantee they will taste any better they are undoubtedly happier," he added.

Building on this success the researchers are now aiming to go one better and give bullied birds somewhere to seek refuge.

A series of wooden hides built into larger pens help weaker birds escape from tormentors. The techniques are being trialled in turkey farms in northeast England, with the birds many of us will eat in three weeks’ time.

Two print quality images are available by clicking the following link.

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