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Thanksgiving Turkey Story

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This afternoon, my turkey piece appears on the NPR home page. I'd sure appreciate it if you'd visit, comment, and hit "Recommend." You can send a small but significant vote for natural history content on NPR.

 It started at dawn, this strange birdcall, circling all around our yard, seemingly nowhere and everywhere at once. Peep, peep-peep. Peep, peep-peep. I’d never heard it before. With 184 species thus far found on our sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio, there aren’t many birdcalls I can’t identify right off the bat. By noon, I was determined to chase it down.  It didn’t take long. Two downy chicks the size of soda cans came stepping out the woods when they heard our voices. Wild turkeys, five days old, honey gold and mottled brown, their round heads turning this way and that as they peeped. They were lost, and looking for their mother.

 Turkey chicks don’t linger in the nest.  As soon as they’re dry from hatching, they’re walking behind their mother, picking up their own food. But turkey broods can be large, and chicks can get split off from the bunch. 
 I let them wander around the yard for another hour or two, the very picture of vulnerability. Lacking a mother, they’d approach any slowly walking entity and follow behind. Their lives depended on it. Finally I sighed, bent down and scooped them up, installing them in a pet carrier. I would take them on a turkey hunt.
 Plunging through briars and nettles, pet carrier under my arm, I walked slowly through woods, sunny openings and raspberry patches, listening for the thunder of wings, a whine, cluck or putt—anything at all. The poults shrilled from their carrier, calling Mom! Mom! Mom! I found a molted turkey feather, shining bronze in the green, but that was it. After two hours, I accepted defeat. I set up a heat lamp to warm them, and watched them tie into a big dish of mealworms. When their crops were full, silence reigned for a few minutes. And the peeping started again.

 Lost baby chickens peep. Lost baby turkeys HOLLER. Peep peep-peep! Peep peep-peep! PEEP PEEP-PEEP!! They were distressed, running back and forth. I sat down next to them and instinctively gathered them to my chest. The shrilling calls turned to soft purrs. Little heads drooped, eyes closing. I felt my heart lift, flutter and settle over them. I walked into the living room. “Pick out a good movie, kids. You have a job to do. These baby turkeys need a good cuddle and a long nap.”  I handed each one a turkey and pondered what to do.

Even looking at this heart-melting scene, I felt the devil’s pitchfork behind me. You can’t fool around with baby turkeys, because unlike the songbirds I usually raise, they rapidly imprint on their caretakers and get to thinking they’re people. And come next spring, you might have a hen turkey flopping down in front of you with her tail raised in invitation, or (much worse) an 18-pound gobbler trying to mate with your head.
 I hit the Internet. The Southeast Ohio Poultry Breeder’s Association website produced a helpful woman with a phone number for a man who raises heirloom bronze-colored turkeys not 15 miles away from me. I called his cellphone, finally connecting about four hours and 2,500 loud, shrill peeps later. He was willing to take our orphans. The foster mother wouldn’t be a wild turkey, but she would be a turkey, the right size, color and shape, and best of all there would be other poults who would teach them to eat and drink.  With luck, they could eventually be released to search out their own kind in the surrounding forest. The kids and I fed them once more and piled in the car to deliver them to their savior.
 I got home after dark, thankful for the Internet, thankful for poultry fanciers, tender children and a day well and oddly spent.

Thanks so much for your support. Now go visit the story on the NPR page, leave a comment and hit Recommend!


I loved rereading that story and was happy to hit "recommend" Happy Thanksgiving!

I loved this story from the first time I heard it.
I can hear those incessant peeps. I know you have Chet Baker well-trained, but did he even look at the peeps? I know what my dog would have done. She's a love, but she's no Chet Baker.

Your poor children... forced to cuddle cute turkey poults.
Work, work,work.


You just happen to have meal worms in your fridge? :)

Aw, Julie, An absolutely precious story! Thanks for sharing! :-) Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

I need help. Springfield, TN is my home and I still have a hummingbird coming to a feeder. Usually they are down by now (tonight will be cold,possible 29)but this one kept coming so I left it up. Do I try to catch it and take it to the wildlife rehab place close to me, rig up something to keep the feed from freezing or let nature run its course? It is a Ruby-throat, probably a female.
Nita Laughlin

Julie's stories are always intriguing, full of love for animals and birds and adventure. She follows through with her stories, so we know what happened and how how it happened and she always has a solution. Julie has always included her children in her escapades and they have absorbed her love of nature, like osmosis.


Posted by Anonymous November 26, 2010 at 6:54 PM

Julie, you're awesome. My kind of person. My kind of animal-loving friend.

From one rescuer to another... peace.


Posted by Anonymous November 27, 2010 at 9:34 PM

Hi Nita. I don't find an email address for you, so will answer this here. I hope never to be in your dilemma which is why I generally take my feeders down before freezing weather. Hummers are tougher than they seem. But I'd be worrying too. What most people eventually do is move the feeder to a sheltered place like under an eave close to the house and rig up something to keep the solution from freezing. One idea is a big coffee can with a light bulb inside it, and the feeder resting on the top of the can. Sometimes the bird will sit there just for the warmth.
If you just can't stand it there may be a local bird bander who has an appropriate trap to set around the feeder who would trap it. Then the problem becomes transporting it to warmer climes. Are you doing a hummingbird any favors taking it somewhere it wasn't supposed to go?
A friend of mine in MA had a rufous hummer at his feeder into the winter. He took the feeder down, not wanting to be responsible for keeping it around. Another perfectly viable solution.
If you haven't read Arnette Heidkamp's book, A Hummingbird in My House, it is great--wonderful photos, and a good snapshot of what it means to shelter a hummingbird inside. She had a little greenhouse he could live in and wound up sheltering a female rufous in a succeeding winter. A lot of work! and expensive--they need a special diet called Nektar-Plus by Nekton.
If you have further questions or concerns, please use my online comment box at

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