The Expert: What I Know About … Turkeys

Rick Wood-Samman has been raising wild turkeys and other exotic game birds since 1990 at his federal hatchery, Dirt Willy Game Bird Farm & Hatchery.

Who: Rick Wood-Samman

Age: 61

Experience: He has been raising wild turkeys and other exotic game birds like pheasants and chukar partridges since 1990 at his federal hatchery, Dirt Willy Game Bird Farm & Hatchery; he sells bird meat to chefs at high-end restaurants, including the Banff Springs Hotel, River Caf in Calgary and La Ronde in Edmonton; on his 80-acre farm, customers can buy live or frozen turkeys and pheasants; people buy his birds to keep as pets, to enter in competitive bird shows and even just for their feathers; last fall, he and his turkeys were featured in a cooking show called Simple, Fresh, Delicious with Jann Arden.

>> “Back at the turn of the [20th] century, there were only about 100,000 [wild] turkeys left in the U.S.; now there are over 7 million.”

>> “More dollars are spent on turkey hunting in the U.S. than any other kind of hunting combined. Elk, moose, wild boar or goose hunting – they don’t even compare to turkey hunting.”

>> “There are around 1,500 wild turkeys in southern Alberta, and a lot of them are in the Cypress Hills, Porcupine Hills to High River and Claresholm area. The Merriam’s turkey is one that’s in the hunting range for southern Alberta. I have three types on my farm: Merriam, Rio Grande and eastern [wild turkey].”

>> “Although a wild turkey is a turkey, it’s quite a different bird from the domestic turkey. It’s smaller and smarter, and it can stay outside in the winter. We actually hit 40-below here sometimes and never lose a bird.”

>> “Wild turkeys are very smart. If you go into the pen in different-coloured coveralls, they pick up on it and get more stressed. I have a lot of people who buy them and keep them as pets, too.”

>> “Turkeys only peck at each other if they’re not fed properly. If you give them chicken scratch instead of good-quality turkey food that has a lot of protein in it, they’ll actually eat each other’s feathers. Turkey feathers are high in protein.”

>> “Hens are a lot smaller than the males. Males have a caruncle, which is the puffy stuff on their throat, and it turns bright red during breeding season. The part that hangs down the side from its beak is called the snood, which they use to impress the females.”

>> “The heads become really blue during breeding season and the necks turn really red. Initially, when you look at them, you think they’re kind of ugly, but they have amazing colourations and these iridescent feathers.”

>> Wild turkeys are very social creatures; they’re like a band. When there [is] something new around, they want to know what it is. When there are ravens or bald eagles that fly through during spring, or if there’s anything they don’t like, they start gobbling to warn the others.”

>> “We start collecting eggs in March, so the busiest time for us on the farm is in May, June, July and August.”

>> “Raising these birds takes a lot more input . You’ve got outdoor pens with a lot of netting, and it’s not done on the scale of these large barns where you have thousands of turkeys inside. It takes six months to get a hen up to three kilograms and the same time for a tom to get up to five kilograms.”

>> “Wild turkeys are sweeter and juicier and quite a bit smaller than the big domestic ones. They have different texture to their meat, too, because they’re outside walking around and eating grass and grains.”

>> “I love eating turkey. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, my wife, Debra, and I cook it in a deep fryer. If we’re invited somewhere for dinner, we will bring an already-cooked turkey or pheasant.”

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