Backyard Chickens Pose Risks to Wild Turkeys

Eastern wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) have adapted to human proximity. Unknown numbers of wild turkeys now inhabit suburban and urban landscapes. Wild turkeys don’t always try to avoid humans, either. Wild birds can even exhibit aggressive behavior toward humans and their pets, leading to nuisance complaints on occasion.

Wild turkey proximity to human populations puts them in locales increasingly occupied by backyard chickens. Chickens are becoming more common in urban and suburban landscapes. St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, issued only two chicken-keeping permits per year between 1987 and the late 1990s. These permits sky-rocketed since 2008. 

Researchers in 2010 documented more than 10,000,000 backyard flocks in Los Angeles, Denver, Miami and New York. More than 4% of single-family homes on 1 acre kept backyard chickens. Four percent of all households surveyed planned to keep backyard poultry. In 2015, 93% of the 150 most populous U.S. jurisdictions permit poultry-keeping, but focus on avoiding nuisance problems, rather than disease prevention in wild birds.

There’s the rub for wild turkeys.  

(Photo Credit: Brandon Johnson)

Sharing their home range with domestic poultry can transmit disease to wild turkeys (What’s Ailing Wild Turkeys?). While disease generally does not play a major role in limiting wild turkey populations, one malady of concern is blackhead disease (histomoniasis) for several reasons.

First, chickens attract wildlife, including wild turkeys. 

Second, chicken hobbyists may overlook blackhead because the signs are subtle. Cyanosis — the blue-black coloration of a bird’s head and the origin of the name ‘blackhead’ disease — rarely occurs in infected birds. Rather, chickens die suddenly from secondary bacterial infections. A definitive diagnosis of blackhead disease requires a post-mortem examination by a qualified veterinarian. 

Third, chicken-keepers’ husbandry differs drastically from biosecurity measures used on commercial poultry operations. Biosecurity refers to everything people do to keep diseases away from birds, property and people. 

Finally, treating blackhead disease in wild flocks isn’t realistic. No federally authorized treatment exists for histomoniasis. Nitarsone, previously used on commercial poultry flocks, worked well. It was pulled from the market in the mid-2000s due to concerns about inorganic arsenic levels in treated birds.  

Prevention Is Key 

What can wild turkey advocates do to help? Talk to local backyard poultry-keepers about techniques for keeping their flocks healthy and protecting wild birds from disease transmission.  

•    Talk about the dangers of poultry disease to wild birds, including wild turkeys. 
•    Point out that wet, warm summers increase worm burdens in chickens, increasing the potential for transmission of histomonas parasites. 
•    Mention that disease is more likely on newly established farms, in refurbished housing, and where an inexperienced flock manager is unaware of the need to manage to prevent conditions conducive to blackhead. 
•    Discuss biosecurity measures for keeping both backyard chicken flocks and wild birds healthy.


Structural biosecurity: 

•    Isolate poultry from visitors and other birds.
•    Clean shoes, tools and equipment.
•    Use only dedicated tools and equipment.
•    Secure flocks to prevent contact with mammals.

Operational biosecurity: 

•    Buy only day-old chicks. 
•    Buy from a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP)-certified flock that meets health and sanitation standards. 
•    Require a NPIP number before purchasing chicks.

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