How the Hen House Turns—Focus on Turkeys

How the Hen House Turns
The Focus on Turkeys
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Thanksgiving week. Time to consider the mental peculiarities of turkeys.

In the early days in California, my brother and I would hike down the hill behind our house, across the creek, and up the other side. At the end of Pa’s acreage, way beyond the fruit trees where we found some old bones and a skull, was a huge fenced field filled with turkeys—white feathered turkeys.

We would holler “gobble gobble gobble,” and they would all answer. The chorus of gobbles would rise to a crescendo of various tones then fade to scattered “gobbles” until we hollered “gobble gobble” again. The chorus would again answer in turn. It was great fun, though the lyrics were limited.

Now I wonder what it meant. Why did they answer to our silly imitation with such a chorus? Turkey One, our imprinted pet of early Hen House days in Los Alamos, didn’t gobble. (I suspect her brown and tan feathers indicated she was half wild.)

Her greeting, when we appeared at the back door, was an eager “ark ark ark,” as she came running to greet us. She never “gobbled.” She had been imprinted on us humans as a chick, when we convinced her that life was worth living; there were grasshoppers to hunt. Don spent two weeks on his knees, pecking in the grass and the periwinkles with his second finger, imitating a turkey mother’s beak. Hopping colored beads in factory farm feeding trays are used to get turkey chicks to “hunt” and eat.

Very soon Turkey One got the idea. She was much better at catching grasshoppers than her human foster parent. She obviously found them more delicious than commercial chick feed.

In earlier Hen House stories, I mentioned Turkey’s talent for hunting. The chicken chicks she grew up with would grab and run if they found a fly, and everyone would battle over the catch. Turkey, however, would freeze—pointing her beak at an unsuspecting fly on the wire fence like a trained Springer Spaniel—then she would snatch and eat it in one swift motion, before anyone else noticed. Turkey also watched airplanes flying far overhead, and drops of water flying from the sprinkler. The chickens wouldn’t even acknowledge a full moon.

The lesson for today? Turkeys are not stupid, perhaps not very far from the wild. Maybe that’s why there are so many on the hill behind our retirement home here in busy California. We also saw a huge flock of wild turkeys on our trip up the coast range to the Lick Observatory. And a friend’s granddaughter in North Carolina encountered a wild turkey in her backyard. Apparently, they’re doing quite well on their own, all over the country.

As we sit down to a delicious roast turkey dinner, I share the respect for them expressed so well by Native Americans, traditionally, at the first Thanksgiving.

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