When I moved to the country this past spring, I breathed a sigh of relief for the natural environment and abundant animal life surrounding me. Gophers are everywhere--supposedly they ran the Russians out of Sonoma County--their wild escapades are evident across the dimpled landscape of the 80-acre organic farm I call home. Jack rabbits run through the olive groves and coyotes cry their lonely songs at night.
Dozens of birds encircle the farm: owls, hawks, crows, blue birds, hummingbirds, robins. Their songs and dances endlessly entertain. I've been graced by fox, deer, badgers, skunk, and raccoons, not to mention the neighbors' chicken, ducks, sheep, goats, horses, llamas and ostrich. And, I've fallen madly for the cows in the grassy field across the way. The glossy girls do a little jig when they see me coming with my bucket of kitchen leftovers and garden waste, which I should be saving for compost.
Nothing prepared me, though, for the wild turkey who planted herself firmly in my front yard the first week I arrived. Although the farm is deer-fenced, a small hen kept showing up in the bushes near the gate. I kept shooing her over the fence, thinking I was helping her to meet up with the flock (or "rafter") down the road. A few minutes later, she would hop back over the fence, effortlessly flying and gliding back to her same spot. Finally, I investigated her perch: a nest, filled with several large turkey eggs. Oh my; turkey babies!
I respectfully kept my distance, but the next morning, I noticed that one of the eggs had rolled out of the nest and into the garden. I panicked. What to do? Touch it and risk her rejecting the egg, or contaminating her whole nest? Leave it and know that one of the night animals would undoubtedly take it? I decided to let nature take its course and leave the egg alone. In the morning, it was gone. I sighed. I wasn't a very good guardian.
Several weeks later, the eggs were gone and I saw a small rafter of turkeys making their way across the road. Hallelujah! The fuzzy poults were plentiful and beautiful and the mother hen watched cautiously over them. I watched with fascination for weeks as the brood grew up and interacted so gracefully with each other and their natural environment. In Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Eating Animals, poultry farmer Frank Reese writes about his life-long relationship with turkeys and his observation of this relationship:
I just always loved the beauty of them, the majesticness. I like how they strut...I love their feather patterns. I've always loved the personality of them. They're so curious, so playful, so friendly and full of life....Having been around turkeys for almost sixty years, I know their vocabulary....The mother turkey is amazing to listen to. She has a tremendous vocal range when she's speaking to her babies. And the little babies understand....Turkeys know what's going on and can communicate it--in their world, in their language.
Now, more than half a year later, the sassy teenagers pretty much rule the roost of our country road. All of the neighbors slow down to let them pass as they make their rounds and everyone keeps a watchful eye on the birds. Every day, the turkeys greet me happily on the road, their red wattles shaking as they run to hop over the fence.
I've been reading up on the hidden life of turkeys and thinking a lot about them lately, especially in connection to the sadness that befalls me each Thanksgiving, when 46 million turkeys are killed. I've also thought that, much like the rest of our industrialized food system, how little most people know about the animals they eat. Much has been made of the lack of intelligence of the turkey. They're often portrayed as dumb or clumsy. I'm convinced that this incorrect depiction has more to do with our cruel breeding for fast growth and unnaturally large birds. Today's turkeys are mercilessly supersized and cruelly raised, bred, and slaughtered. Frank Reese writes:
"Not a single turkey you can buy in a supermarket could walk normally, much less jump or fly...They can't even have sex. Not the antibiotic-free, or organic, or free-range, or anything. They all have the same foolish genetics, and their bodies won't allow for it anymore. Every turkey sold in every store and served in every restaurant was the product of artificial insemination...Tell me what could be sustainable about that?"
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