When Bogie and Bacall Came to the Farm
At least once during the holiday season I hear a radio story or watch a TV segment that depicts turkeys as dimwitted, noodle brained creatures, too stupid to figure out how to eat or stay warm. Could this really be true? At least once during the holiday season I hear a radio story or watch a TV segment that depicts turkeys as dimwitted, noodle brained creatures, too stupid to figure out how to eat or stay warm. Could this really be true? After all, Benjamin Franklin recommended the turkey, not the eagle, as the symbol of our nation!
Because I had experience raising chickens, I decided to raise some turkeys and find out for myself if they are really stupid. I found a rather small turkey breed called the Bourbon Red that has a very dark, rich, chestnut color that is edged in black on many of the feathers giving it a very striking appearance. Because the turkey is believed to have been developed in Pennsylvania by settlers bound for Ohio and Kentucky, I thought Ben Franklin might have known turkeys of this type.
Rather than raise a bunch of turkey babies, or poults, to grow up with a heat lamp as a mother, I decided to get a pair of adult birds and let them raise their own young. So Boogie and Bacall came to our farm. They lived in the chicken pen and every morning the pair ran out into the pasture to spend the day searching for goodies. At night Boogie and Bacall trouped back and bedded down in the chicken house.
Soon Boogie and Bacall were proud parents. When hatched, I expected the poults to be up and running around within a day like baby chicks. But Bacall continued to keep them near the nest. Unlike chicks the baby turkeys were ungainly and clumsy and had exceptionally long necks. As they fell asleep their heads would roll to the side or fall forward into the straw. It was like watching young children fall asleep with their face in their dinner plate. Their long, heavy legs were always getting mixed up and they often fell in a heap. It took them some time to get untangled and on their feet again. Bacall spent two weeks shuffling close to the ground with her wings spread over the babies. She acted like a giant umbrella, protecting them from heat and cold. When they fell asleep she would close her wings around them and hold them close.
Thinking this was just an example of programmed behavior, I was surprised when I came home from work one afternoon to find Bacall and the babies missing! Frantically, I grabbed a small bucket of grain and began calling them. My eye caught a slight movement out in the tall grass of the pasture. Squinting in the setting sun, I realized that the movement was Bacall’s head. It was hard to separate her head from the sky as Bacall’s featherless, slightly blue head blended perfectly with the tips of the long grass.
But I didn’t see a poult in sight. Nor could I hear any of their usual frantic peeping. As I approached Bacall, I noticed that she would peer down into the tall grass and make a curious whirring call. After a slight pause she continued on her slow stroll until she seemed to spy something in the grass below and would again make the strange call.
I crouched down to see if I could discover what was going on. I found that all the babies surrounded their mother and were carefully stalking through the grass stems. Each poult was peering intently through the grass. From above came Bacall’s whirring call and suddenly the poult closest to the sound lunged and grabbed a bug. This was repeated over and over, a call would come from above and the poult closest to the sound would grab a bug. I suddenly realized that Bacall was spotting bugs from above and telling the poults where to find prey. I was watching a modern T-Rex train babies in hunting.
As the last rays of the sun shrank back across the pasture, Bacall stepped to the edge of the tall grass. She crouched down and called the babies to her. I realized that Bacall knew each of her babies by voice. Her soft call was answered in turn by each baby as it snuggled its way under her enormous wings. As dusk began to fade into darkness, Bacall got her feet. With her wings clamped tightly to her sides, she ran across the open space between the pasture’s tall grass and the safety of the chicken pen. Dangling beneath her wings were eight pairs of baby turkey legs. Bacall was carrying her babies to safety! Once in the pen she slowly opened her wings and each poult dropped softly to the ground. With a shake of her feathers Bacall led her family into the hen house for the night.
I understand now why Ben Franklin thought the turkey was appropriate as our national symbol. The turkeys I have known are extraordinary survivalists in a world where danger is everywhere. To the Native Americans the turkey was sacred because of their abundance and the nutrition they provided the tribe. So perhaps this year, we can ignore the message that turkeys are witless and stupid, choosing instead to see the message of the turkey as the need to cultivate and care for those people and resources that benefit our lives. After all, isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?