I never really understood turkeys and turkey culture until we started to raise them. We all know the stereotype—stupid, slow, and unable to fend for themselves. Well, after another year of husbanding turkeys, I want to set the record straight.
Turkeys are careful, thoughtful, and gentle. Yet, they are courageous and fearless when necessary. They are excellent mothers—more so than other poultry we have raised. Let’s start with their arrival in a box as day-old poults. They resemble baby chickens, just a bit longer in neck and a bit slower in manner. When we have losses, it is during the first few weeks after they arrive. The first year we raised them, I believed the stupid turkey myth. They would just starve. “Why aren’t they eating?” “What’s wrong with them? They really are stupid!” I was comparing them to baby chickens, which are much more self-sufficient. Baby chickens practically hop out of the box and are eating machines, compared to baby turkeys. Does that make turkeys stupid? No, it makes them more like wallflowers. Turkeys and chickens are apples and oranges, and can’t be compared.
We overcame this obstacle by realizing that baby turkeys just need more mothering. Like most large animals, they need a mom. A mom shows them what to eat, nurtures them, encourages them. Picture a classroom full of kids, and the one or two kids that are more shy and hang out at the back of the class. That’s turkeys.
Turns out, if you imitate a mother turkey by pretending that your hand is a turkey head, dipping your fingers in water so the food sticks, the turkeys will figure out that that “beak” finger bears food, and after a few tries, even their tiny beaks can pick up food on their own. It also helps to give them food that is a contrasting color—like a bowl of yogurt. Then sprinkle dark food into it. They can see that. Sometimes it seems like they don’t have very good spacial recognition at that tender age. Duh, who does? And, if we don’t have time for that, it helps to put a broody hen with the baby turkeys to help them learn. If she’s in the right mood, she can mother a big flock of turklets. Putting a few baby chickens in with the baby turkeys can also get them past that initial learning curve, since they’re more self-sufficient.
Once the turkeys move outside, they explore in a thoughtful, considerate way. Chickens are go-getters, running hither-thither, helter-skelter, and grabbing at anything and everything. Turkeys like to ponder, wonder, and consider. I imagine that they philosophize their days away. As they mature, the dominant males will begin to show themselves, and compete, putting on the classic turkey display: circle of tail feathers, puffed up snood and wattles. Yet rarely have I seen a real turkey knock-down, drag-out fight. They seem to be able to talk it out and walk away. More humility, more thoughtful. Roosters, on the other hand, are ruthless, stupid fighters. They are also rapists. I’ve never seen a tom turkey gang-rape the hens, but it happens all the time in a flock of chickens if the rooster/hen ratio is off-balance.
I never realized how courageous they are until it came time to butcher the giant birds. Keep in mind that at 5 months old, toms weigh about 40-50 pounds, and their wingspan is close to 6 feet. That’s a HUGE bird. When we catch them, we have to embrace them; wrap our arms around the powerful wings and try to avoid being pummeled by those wings. Last week, I learned my lesson and got hit in the face by one wing hard enough to see stars. They are powerful. And they can fly. Even our big, muscled turkeys were able to fly. So, keep them happy and they won’t leave. You know how a flock of geese or swans looks flying above you? Imagine the same thing, but twice as big, and you have a flock of turkeys. And if you haven’t witnessed a flying turkey, you haven’t seen magic. That something that large and seemingly bulky can gracefully glide through the air, overhead, is akin to seeing Santa’s sleigh and reindeer. Awesome.
Walking through a flock of chattering turkeys at feeding time, waist-high, yet gently nibbling at your clothes. A herd of pigs rips you apart, but turkeys easily part for the bearer of food, they stand back so feed can be poured into feeders. They are civilized, folks. Chickens, on the other hand, are NOT CIVILIZED. They are frantic, frenzied feeders!
That brings me to butchering. Turkeys in the wild (unless they are shot by hunters) can live 4-5 years, but up to 15 years. In captivity, unless being used for breeding, turkeys only make it to 4 or 5 months old, which is not fully mature. We catch them up, gently, and then as gently as possible the next day, we butcher them. They don’t understand at first, but after about 20 birds, they figure out that those first ones aren’t coming back, and as the flock gets smaller, they do get upset. They worry and they are scared. So you can’t tell me that they are without feelings. And that makes it hard to kill them. They resign themselves to it though. We try to be as quick as possible to spare them excess fear.
So, if you ask me, I absolutely think that the Wild Turkey should have been the national bird. What bird better represents the ideals of our country in the formative years of its youth. Certainly, the cowardly, lazy actions of the Bald Eagle are not what I feel represents me (although, in the grand scheme of our politics, I suppose the Bald Eagle is spot-on.) The Eagle is all looks, but it relies on the work of other predators, stealing from bears, osprey, and others, and feasting on rotting leftovers. Bald Eagles are cowards, running from the threat of a crow or anything else that threatens it. I would choose the unwavering, thoughtful, humble, courageous Wild Turkey any day.