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Temporary Turkey Mom

Sunday, July 18, 2010

In my previous post, I introduced two wild turkey poults that had gotten separated from their mother and siblings. What to do with them? I couldn't leave them out for the hawks and raccoons.
The turkey poults ignored chick starter, both dry and soaked, no matter how I pecked at it with my finger and offered it up to them. So I scrounged a dish of mealworms from my ancient beetle bin and Nelly bar the door--the chicks fell to and the worms were gone in seconds. Wow! and whew. Feeding them is always the thing. I hoped they would pick up the chick starter mash with the worms, but they carefully shook the food off the worms before downing the live treats. They weren't dumb. They considered the commercial chick starter simply a kind of odiferous mud to be carefully shaken off their delicious mealworms. They pecked at but refused sowbugs and cucumber beetles, which were likely too armored and distateful, respectively, to bother with. Mealworms it would be.

Once they were fed I figured they might stop peeping. But they were cold in the air-conditioned house and they wanted their mama and the peeping continued, louder and more plaintive even than before. It was driving me to distraction. On an impulse I knelt down and gathered them up and held them under my neck, against my heart. This is something almost all women seem to do with young things. Women just know what to do with baby creatures; they scoop them up and snuggle them up under their chins, against the heart. And the poults' eyes closed and the peeping turned to a purr and their dear little heads drooped and they fell fast asleep.

So I called to the kids. "Get a good movie, sit down on the couch. You have a job to do." And I gave Phoebe one turkey and Liam the other and while the babies slept in their warm hands, I settled in to think about what I was going to do.

Truly, the only time they were quiet was when they were being cuddled. They obviously enjoyed it. When the kids would open their hands, the poults wouldn't jump out; they'd cuddle down closer. They felt safe next to a beating heart, no matter whose.

What a sweet family I am blessed with.

I fished out a 20 gallon long tank with a screened cover, found my reptile heat lamp and some aspen shavings and set them up in the living room. Young turkeys need to be warm--90 degrees or better--and they calmed down when they felt the soothing heat of the lamp. They calmed down a little. But they were still darned loud, trying to keep in touch with their mama, wherever she'd gone. Peep, PEEP PEEP? Peep, PEEP PEEP?

Repeat ad nauseum, until you want to leap out of your skin. I have an overactive maternal instinct, and I have to say it drove me NUTS to be unable to soothe them. It took me right back to Phoebe's colicky days, and Liam's ear infection years.

That's it, little turkeys. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.

Even though they dozed beneath the lamp, the only thing that truly soothed them was being cuddled, so the kids were happily busy and quietly hoping they could name them and keep them.

I made it clear that these turkeys were only on loan. No turkeys, thank you very much. I'd read enough to know that raising wild turkeys is a full-time job if they imprint on you as their mama. And I have a couple of those (full-time jobs).

Not only that, but if the turkeys get to thinking they're people, next spring you have a hen flopping down in front of you, tail raised in invitation, or (worse) an 18-pound gobbler trying to mate with your head.

A quiet moment, preening emerging wing feathers. Turkeys this young can fly a little! It's amazing.

I hit the Web, finding the Southeast Ohio Poultry Breeder's Association. And there I found a contact phone number for their annual poultry shows, and the kind woman I reached there found me a breeder of heirloom bronze turkeys--not the big, super-dumb white butterballs that are about the only commercial turkey raised, but turkeys that look and act more like turkeys ought to. Of course, they're rare as hen's teeth, but some people still raise them. And he lived not far from my house! So I called his cell phone and left a message for him and listened to the poults' peeping for four more hours until I wanted to pull my hair out (they'd woken up and eaten a few more times and but they were still sad and lonely for their mom). Finally I called him again and got him. And he said he'd take them.

Hallelujah hallelujah. I was limp with relief. They wouldn't grow up wild, but they'd be safe, and they'd have a turkey mama who looked right, sounded right and felt right and did all the right things, and they'd have foster brothers and sisters. He said he'd try to release them when they were old enough to fend for themselves. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," he said, obviously having been in this predicament before. But maybe they'd have a chance to reconnect with wild turkeys. It beat being coon food, which is where they were headed when I picked them up. And that was the best I could do for them. When I fed them one last time and dropped them off on his doorstep at 8 pm, heaving a huge sigh of relief and reveling in the quiet, I reflected that it was a day well and oddly spent. As are many of my days. Caring this much about birds gets you into some weird fixes. But you learn, you live, you learn, with the wild things leading you all the way.


How many "super-dumb" commercially raised turkeys have you known? You're probably right that they're not as smart as wild ones, but that's not surprising considering that they're raised mostly in the dark in cramped conditions and completely without their mothers.

Can't blame you for not wanting to hold onto these little guys for too long--you're absolutely right that they will be an enormous handful if they grow up with you.

Becci, I never blame the animal for being dumb, even though it sounds like it here. I blame people for breeding the brains right out of them. We did it to many breeds of dogs by narrowing their braincases for a racier look; we've done it to chickens and turkeys by selecting for completely arbitrary traits like heavy legs and huge breast muscles. By selecting for these traits, in one instance we've created Leghorn roosters that kill hens when they try to breed with them! (Aggression, apparently, comes with the big breast package. Whoops).

The sad fact is that domestic white turkey poults will stand out in the rain, looking up, until they drown something you won't catch a wild turkey doing. Super-dumb? Yep. But not their fault by any means. As you correctly point out, they're raised without their mothers, innocent of cultural transmission, and robbed of instinct--this is what we've done do to CAFO animals and birds.

Here's a toast to the people who keep the heirloom breeds going. If we all patronized our farmer's markets and demanded those, the world would be a better, kinder, saner and more beautiful place.

Ah. Well that explains Afghan hounds.

Sometimes as a letter carrier I would deliver boxes of chicks and the peeping was so darn cute. For the first two, three hours. Never seemed to have a chick delivery at the beginning of the route. It provoked strong feelings in me, too, none of them maternal. It's so nice to read a post from the viewpoint of a finer human being. I love this, Turkey Mama. And sentences like "So I scrounged a dish of mealworms from my ancient beetle bin and..." get second and third readings for the good of my lyrical heart.

Great job. I recently hatched 5 wild turkey eggs after their nest and (tragically) their mom was ran over by a bush hog mower. They are now 2 months old and approaching release age. YOu aren't alone!

Another wonderful rescue story. Those two turkey babies stepped right into the safest place possible besides their own mother's wings.

Those pics of the kids holding them are really the best.

Re turkeys and mating - if you ever havea chance, pick up Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" (AWESOME book). My cousin loaned it to me last summer in Maine and I was reading it while out on the wharf. I started chuckling, then laughing, then I snorted and hawed and rolled until I cried. My cousin said "You reached the turkey sex chapter, didn't you?"

You just couldn't get any cuter than those baby turkeys...Glad they've found a home, and thanks for sharing with us yet another marvelous story.

Not entirely surprised that turkey poults can fly. Chukar quail chicks can fly right out of the egg. Not far, but they can fly.

Other quail species do what is known as wing assisted climbing, flapping madly while walking up sharply angled to near vertical surfaces.

Great story and pics as always! I love the camouflage patterns on those little guys and their faces are so cute!

Julie, there's a lot of turkey raising going on in these parts (Jennie O) and the part about turkeys drowning in the rain has been sited as an urban legend, not true.

Posted by Anonymous July 20, 2010 at 8:49 AM

Oh, what a lovely story. Thanks and more love, XXOOM.

Posted by Anonymous July 20, 2010 at 5:53 PM

Hey Julie!

This brings back memories growing up when my dad had a couple wild turkeys running around in the yard with the chickens. I'm not sure how he came across them but I always enjoyed watching the tom in the spring strut around & gobble.

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