I think it was No. 17 we ate for Thanksgiving. I don’t name anything we are going to eat, but somehow the number became a name anyway. No. 17 was a Heritage Bronze turkey we had raised from an egg, along with twelve of his brothers and sisters. The intention was always to raise the birds for market; however, this meal was bitter sweet because, by the time Thanksgiving was upon us, I enjoyed my peeping toms.
Turkeys are actually hard to raise from an egg, something we didn’t really pick up on when we first decided to go into the business. We started with two females and a tom and quickly started counting eggs, at one time up to 36! Unfortunately, the survival rate for just-hatched chicks is dismal because they are often suffocated by their large mothers, pushed out of the nest by accident, or wander off. Then, our first hen to lay keeled over and died for no apparent reason and left her babies to us!
At this point, the second, smaller hen began to lay. She would poop several eggs a day until she had a nest full. Once she was finished laying she missed the next part of the assignment. She had no intention of sitting on these eggs for the requisite 20+ days. The tom stepped in and barely moved off the nest until the eggs started to hatch. He was so dedicated to his job, I worried he might die from starvation.
While hens can unintentionally smother their off-spring, the tom had no idea his chicks had even hatched before they started dying. This could be the reason we became attached to our turkeys. Annie and I would check several times a day for fledgling babies, trying not to get bitten by the tom. One would distract while the other would quickly reach for a wobbly body going limp and cold, either pressed between the unhatched eggs or kicked out onto the dirt floor. A fair number of the chicks did die, but others we were able to warm under a lamp in the house and feed with a dropper until a life force took hold again. Two were so near death Annie and her friend held them next to their beating hearts for several hours while they watched Animal Planet, warming them with their body heat. Amazingly, it worked.
The kitchen became the infirmary. It was warm and bright and we could keep an eye on feed and water. The cats, especially Bubba as a kitten, had the bad habit of sitting on top of the large cage just to watch. Rather like eyeing goldfish swimming in a bowl. Every now and again he would see how far his paw could reach into the cage – just for a little feel, rather like the game he liked to play with Bezel when he pretended not to touch him. The birds might have been young, but they had an innate sense to stay towards the center of the cage whenever Bubba was around.
It’s a funny thing about raising chicks in a kitchen. One day everything is fresh and smells of dinner and desserts; the next, the pungent smell of grown chicks, no longer small, downy wonders, becomes overwhelming. It was time to send these gangly teenagers into the big, wide world of the chicken yard to fend for themselves. While the dangers of the outdoors seemed harsh, the stink in the kitchen seemed harsher, so out they went.
As the turkeys grew through the summer, they alternatively harassed the chickens, scared the dogs and cats, and hung out with us on our chores around the farm. They could be found looking through the fence rails at the horses, dodging the sprinklers near the road, or begging a handout from our work crew when they took a smoke break. Where the hens were wild and lacked in personality, the toms spent their days running around as a group, tussling and gobbling, showing off to each other in a display of tail feathers, and, even, for a brief time, sidling up to Fred, the peacock, a bird of similar size but even more exquisite beauty. Fred, of course, was more interested in the hens, for whom he displayed on a regular basis.
Of all their antics, my toms were funniest in the early evenings of our hot, dry summer, when we would find them looking into the dining room windows while standing on our ice chests stored on the back deck. Granted, these windows were almost floor to ceiling, but we would regularly have three to four toms peeping into the house. Who knows, maybe all they could see was the reflection of more turkeys. More brothers! Whatever was going through their pea brains, it was a pretty comical sight, all these large, decorative birds standing in a row. It’s one of my fondest memories.
The day the truck came to pick up the lambs and turkeys for market I had mixed emotions, even more so after we finally had them all in the trailer. Loading the lambs was the usual nightmare because they acted like sheep and had no interest in getting into an unfamiliar van. They knocked over the 12-year old girl brought along by her grandpa to help with the herding, and several escaped the pen all together until the dogs were called in to help. This behavior always breaks any bonds I may have thought I harbored towards these animals. By the time the lambs were loaded, I was visualizing them in the freezers of all those people who love the flavor of a good lamb chop.
The turkeys, on the other hand, did not have a clue what was going on and allowed us to scoop them up and put them into the next section of the trailer as if we had lost our minds. They stood huddled in a tight group, wary of the new space and the sounds of the shuffling lambs. But the silly, beautiful, hilarious birds didn’t even try to escape. I actually swore I wouldn’t raise turkeys again after that day. It was just too sad.
No, no more turkeys. Until this year when our meat supplier mentioned how many requests had come in from the previous season. The turkeys had been the best they had ever tasted. It was like being a pilgrim…or at least eating something that was actually real, had come out of a fertilized egg, and had lived a good life. That was the part of which I was proudest. These were healthy birds that had been allowed to wander our farm, to dig for grubs, to chase the cats, to be curious about the birds reflected in the dining room windows. They had provided the first graders from the Alsea school an up-close-and-personal experience that required Wikipedia to answer all of their questions. “How many feathers do they have?” “Why do they gobble?” “Why is that red thing coming out of their nose?”
So, I guess, we will try and raise turkeys again, but, this year, I swear those chicks need to make it on their own…at least until I find one out of the nest, struggling to survive, in need of a heat lamp. It’s the circle of life all over again. It’s just that this circle will probably, once again, include the kitchen.
(The photo shows one of the toms standing on the ice chest looking in. “Can I come in for a visit?”)
All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones