Blackhead Disease in Turkeys
By Judy Derrickson
It is my opinion that turkeys are birds that wake up each day and say, "It's a good day to die!"
First of all, it can't be easy being a critter that tastes so good! There are so many predators, on the ground and in the air, waiting to capitalize on the vulnerability of a broody hen from the time she lays her eggs until the time her poults can fly, which is, thankfully, quite early in their development.
Judy's free range turkeys
If the threat of predation were not enough, turkeys seem to be particularly vulnerable to diseases other upland fowl can carry without symptoms. One such notorious disease is Blackhead Disease.
Contrary to the image that comes to mind with the name, Blackhead Disease does not cause a turkey's head to turn black. Lack of adequate blood flow will cause the neck and head skin to appear darker, and given how seriously ill turkeys get with this disease, that is probably how it got this name. Blackhead disease is a parasitic condition, but not a simple matter of having "worms". It is caused by a protozoa, a one-celled organism (an amoeba, for instance, is a protozoa), called Histomonas meleagridis, which is actually a parasite to a parasitic worm, the cecal worm. How crazy is that?!? A parasite has its own parasite! Nature can be creepy at times, can't it?
A cecal worm, as the name implies, infests the ceca of a bird. (A cecum is a blind-end pouch of the large intestine. Most animals have one, birds have two.) Some fowl species, such as pheasants and the domestic chicken, can carry the cecal worm and the parasitic protozoa it contains, with no ill effects. However, certain species, such as pea fowl and turkeys, will become deathly ill when they acquire a cecal worm/histomona infestation. The protozoa enters the bloodstream and lodges in the liver, causing yellow ringed lesions. The bird itself becomes listless, has drooping wings and head, loss of appetite, sulfur colored stools due to liver damage, and finally, death. Mortality can be as high as 100% in a turkey flock, especially in a farming situation.
The following article by the National Wild Turkey Foundation gives a detailed description of the disease and its method of transmission.
I am not a turkey hunter....yet. It is not that I don't think turkey hunting can be fun, but since the big season is in the Spring, it happens to coincide with my busiest time on the farm. There are so many things to plant in my garden, new chicks in the brooder needing constant monitoring, newborn kid goats to feed, cheese to make from the sudden glut of milk. There is not much time for hunting or other recreation. However, I do raise a handful of turkeys every year for the table, so I really do love and appreciate the birds. Last year I became painfully aware of the frailty of these beautiful birds when I nearly lost my entire homestead flock to Blackhead Disease.
Judy with her free range turkeys
I had raised five Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys for the table the previous year, and had lost one to heart failure. The young Tom had simply gone down, then wasted away. I finally put him down, and found a flaccid heart and fluid-filled pericardium. These specialized meat breeds are particularly vulnerable to heart trouble, due to their accelerated weight gain. I had that batch of turkeys in a movable pen, so the second year, I figured I would solve the heart problem by letting the birds free range. Perhaps if they moved around more naturally, their hearts would be stronger. When a hen started to act listless at four months of age, I assumed her heart was failing, so I slaughtered her immediately to avoid wasting. What I found horrified me.
The heart was fine, but the liver was terribly diseased. The yellow necrotic areas suggested Blackhead, and the turkey had shown all the symptoms. In fact, all the birds had the tell-tale sulfur, foamy droppings. The green color of the organ, I was told, was from either a secondary bacterial infection, or from liver failure and congestion of the bile. The carcass was a total loss. I dared not even feed it to my dogs! I was afraid I would lose the rest, and have no home grown turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Diseased turkey liver- Hunters look for this!
That is the liver of the turkey. The yellow rings are lesions from the blackhead protozoa. The green color is secondary liver congestion, probably due to a secondary bacterial infection.
I called the poultry division of the Clemson extension service, and was told there was no cure for my remaining turkeys. There WAS a drug on the market at one time, and was safe and effective, but it was removed from the market due to abuse. The anti-microbial, anti-parasitic drug Flagyl would cure the birds, but I could never use the meat. This would be OK for breeding stock, but these meat birds are too big to breed naturally, so what would be the use? The only "help" she offered was to tell me to keep next year's birds away from my laying hens (who are carriers of cecal worms), worm the birds periodically to cut down on any worms they pick up, saturate the ground with salt to kill any earthworms, also vectors of the protozoa, and feed commercial turkey feed with histostats. (I learned later that this feed contains ARSENIC to control the protozoa!)
Well, I figured if I wanted to eat turkey that tasted just as BLAND as the ones in the store, and gave me just as much digestive trouble, I would do better not to go through the great expense and hard work of raising them. Why bother? No, I had to find another solution! I was told to worm my remaining birds to kill the cecal worm, and I did so, using a drug I trust for use in my goats. Next, I had to kill the protozoa. I looked up "natural alternatives to Flagyl", and came up with cayenne pepper and ginger. I ran this information by a friend of mine who is a veterinary pathologist. He said that the University of Georgia had done studies on cayenne for Blackhead Disease, and it worked well.
I made special pudding for my turkeys, using leftover rice, extra eggs, and extra goat milk. I added lots of cayenne, about a tablespoon per bird per day the first week. The birds began to show improvement. After all symptoms disappeared, I added smaller doses of cayenne daily to prevent re-infection. The birds thrived and grew well. Their final dressed weight was ten pounds lighter than the previous year's birds, but a thirty pound bird as compared to a forty pound one is not a terrible thing! The livers were pristine, and the flavor was better than any turkey I had ever tasted, probably due to the rice pudding diet. the only sign that my big Toms had been sick at all was a narrow band of red in their otherwise black beards, the lack of pigment showing the period of illness.
The modern day solution to disease in livestock is drugs, more drugs, and monoculture. I like to take a more holistic approach. In the future, I want to raise my own turkeys and select for disease resistance, which is practically absent from hatchery birds, especially the modern breeds. Even the older breeds are susceptible, but there are pastured poultry farmers in Georgia who have gone down this same road, and now have resistant flocks which intermingle with their pastured chickens. Their story is toward the end of this article:
What are the implications of this discussion for our wild flocks? Well, of course, population density is one thing to be considered. There will always be a limit to the carrying capacity of the habitat for any one species. If numbers get too high, there is no farmer out there to care for the sick critters, and disease could wipe out a whole flock or herd. Hunters can do their part, to reduce populations, and wildlife managers can set bag limits accordingly. I had a different thought, though, based on some things I have observed in recent years regarding changes in wildlife management. The NWTF talks about pheasants being a danger to turkeys if they share the same habitat. I have to wonder if this is backward thinking? I hope the fear of the disease is not determining overall wildlife management. I do know for a fact that Pennsylvania cut WAY down on their pheasant stocking, crippling the small game hunting tradition. Granted, pheasants are not an indigenous species, but they have become popular game birds, and I should hope there is no push to either eradicate (in the name of environmentalism, a lot of animals and plants are called "invasive species" simply because they were not here before Columbus came! Even earthworms have been targeted for extermination by some state agencies!) or simply not propagate and stock these wonderful birds. I would wager that most of the wild turkeys come from stock that was raised in captivity long ago when the restoration of the wild turkey first began. Just like hatchery turkeys, perhaps the resulting birds have low resistance? What if some wild birds were deliberately raised with chickens or pheasants, and selected for resistance, and their progeny released into the wild? Would that not be a better solution in the long run?
I doubt I will ever change the agriculture industry or wildlife management, but on my own farm, I can manage as I see fit. I prefer diversity and abundance. While it is true that disease is a fact of life any time animals are concentrated in any given area, I believe that nature can be wonderfully resilient, and that there is a natural answer to most problems. I also believe that one of these years, I will finally find the time to sit and call a gobbler into shotgun range. I certainly am learning a lot about turkey talk and behavior from my own birds!