During the holiday season I think about turkeys. Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Lare, there’s a presidential campaign in full swing. It’s hard not to think about turkeys.” I don’t mean that kind of turkey! Those turkeys don’t have wattles. Well, actually some of the older ones almost have wattles, but to my knowledge, none of them have snoods. No, I mean the kind of turkeys that puff themselves up and strut about. Wait a minute, that’s still confusing. I mean the kind of turkeys Ben Franklin admired, the kind that have wings and feathers and come from eggs, not focus groups. Those are my kind of turkeys. I have lived amongst them.
I must confess I did not start out to be a turkey boy. My dream had always been to be a cowboy. I wanted to learn to ride a horse, handle a sixgun, never lose my hat in a fight. And maybe sing “Back in the Saddle Again” and own a major league baseball team. But career paths often don’t go as planned, and somewhere along the way I had a son. And one fine spring day when he was young, my son acquired, by being in the right place at the right time at the local farm-and-garden store, a crippled turkey chick.
As is so often the case with crippled birds, little “Champion” soon was committed back to the earth beneath a popsicle-stick marker bearing his name. But a door had been opened that could not be closed, and a chicken-wire pen sprang up behind the garden to house a small flock of healthy birds.
It was a successful experiment, and in November of that year, after a visit to a certain business establishment near Hardwick, the six members of the flock were distributed in plastic bags to various friends, who gave each bird a place of honor at the Thanksgiving table.
Now I’m sure you have heard all those stories about how dumb turkeys can be and are wondering why I would want to associate with such creatures. I will admit turkeys have many bad habits. They are greedy and self-centered, they can be very mean and bully each other, and (you might want to make sure no small children are in the room when you read this), they have terrible table manners, walk in their food, and smack their beaks when they eat. But turkeys are not exactly dumb. And they can fly, at least when they are young and have not yet grown tremendous breasts.
Emboldened by our success, the next spring we increased the size of the pen and ordered two dozen chicks. It was then, that for me, many of the myths about turkeys began to crumble.
You may have heard, as I did, that turkeys are so dumb they will drown in a rainstorm because they look up at the rain in amazement with beaks agape and the rain runs down their throats. The first night my 24 fledglings were in their pen, we had a downpour. Fearing the worst, I grabbed my flashlight and headed to the pen. The roost shelter was empty — this being their first night outside they were dumb enough to still fear it. But instead of 24 sodden dead bodies, all the fledglings were lying on the ground with their heads tucked under a wing. The rain streamed off them as if they were ducklings. They had known exactly what to do. I returned to the house soaked but enlightened. I was not smart enough to have put on my raincoat. Fortunately I did not look up at the rain.
Over the ensuing years I learned more about turkeys. The revelation that young turkeys enjoy a sport akin to soccer came one year when the weather turned very cold just after the chicks arrived. Chicks must be kept warm until they grow their feathers. The brooder box was in an unheated shed. Fearing the chicks might perish if the heat lamp on the brooder box failed, I moved the brooder box into the living room of the house.
A few days later I noticed the chicks were beginning to pick at each other. I went to the farm-and-garden store and asked for advice. “They’re bored,” the manager told me, “They need something to do.” He suggested I place a piece of sod in the brooder box.
When I put the sod square into the brooder box, you would have thought Godzilla was stomping his way through downtown Tokyo. The chicks fled to the farthest corner and boiled around in a fuzzy mass. This went on for about 30 minutes. Then one brave chick began eyeing the sod. There was a clover leaf on its stalk at the nearest edge. The chick moved closer and kept eyeing the clover. Then, summoning all the courage in its little turkey heart, it dashed across the remaining distance and plucked the leaf. Immediately the rest of the chicks gave pursuit. When the first chick dropped the leaf, another picked it up, and all the others then chased that chick. It was a youth-league soccer game, where there is no strategy other than all players converging on the ball.
The game went on for what seemed the allotted 90 minutes, with extra time for stoppages. Then, as so often happens in World Cup, Germany won. Well, actually, the last chick to have the leaf simply ate it, and the others lost interest and began scratching and picking at the sod.
It has been quite a few years now since I gave up turkey wrangling. My son’s interests shifted to Legos, then computers, and then he was off to college. But with a New Year approaching and the endless stream of political ads on television, I miss being surrounded by real turkeys — not the ones on TV — the ones Ben Franklin admired.