It is a beautiful fall day. As I prepare breakfast, from outside comes a series of contented avian sounds. No, not our fine chickens—they tend to only make noises when they are squabbling (a universal feature of sentient Life I believe) or effusively celebrating the laying of an egg. Rather, the sound I am hearing is coming from Tweedle, our loquacious turkey.
All day long, she emits a variety of expressive vocalizations that add a wonderful, cozy ambience to the ranch. Highly social, flock-oriented creatures, turkeys have a vocabulary of over 50 sounds for communications, according to Joe Hutto, who lived with wild turkeys for a year. Right now, Tweedle is making a lovely rippling sound, almost like water gurgling over rocks. Sometimes she chirps, or utters a series of Arh! Arh! Arh! Arh! Arh!, or chuckles like a sandhill crane. Sometimes she purrs. Sometimes her sounds are short, sometimes long, sometimes soft, sometimes a series, sometimes raucous.
We have bears. We have wolves. We have a cougar. We have an overly-friendly German shepherd. And who protects us? Alerts us—in very clear language—of a stranger or intruder? Tweedle, our Watch Turkey. Loud, outraged, and clearly conveying her alarm, she lets us know in no uncertain terms that there is possible Danger! Danger! Danger! when a stranger comes on the property. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote that he would have preferred the turkey to the eagle as our national bird. “He is a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
And if we try to move her against her will, 40 pounds of turkey suddenly weighs 100 as she hunkers down in protest and makes herself heavy. She does NOT want to go to the coop at night. But because of how she was bred, she is too heavy to fly or perch in the trees, which would be her natural preference, and we have to put her inside to protect her from predators.
But her stubbornness is amazing. I have watched two staff members crouch over her, trying to get her to move for close to an hour.
She did not want to move.
She did not want to be pushed.
A most recalcitrant bird.
They were rightfully being very careful with her because her skeletal structure is so fragile they were afraid to pick her up and have her struggle, or put her down off- balance on her brittle hips.
The last turkeys we had were domestic but functional. We rescued Tweedle from a poultry breeding facility but were unprepared for the damage that breeding her for food had done to her. It birthed a drastically maladapted bird into the world. It is painful to see a deformed turkey when the wild turkeys are so sleek, agile, and competent. It hurts to see what we have done without care. It is painful because her “turkeyness” or her “selfhood” or whatever you want to call it, the unique Tweedleness and intelligence and capacity to enjoy what pleasures she can, are so obvious. Eating them is one thing; breeding without care, simply to please the market, is quite another. Disrespectful of the magic of Life. That we humans are capable of becoming so numb and disconnected is a profound tragedy, for us and for the rest of Life. When we first got her as a tiny poult she was agile and full of life, proud when she was finally grown enough to fly up and perch for the night like the adults. As the months went by, she became more and more disabled. We watched with sadness as her genetics slowly began to cripple her. She can barely walk. Her legs splay out because of a vastly overdeveloped breast, pushing her hip joints out of place. Bred to be an eating machine to put on weight quickly, she weighed 40 pounds at 6 months. Every night when we shoo her into the coop, she stretches her neck to look longingly at the perch above her. She is unable to fly up to reach it, but even if she could, she would be unable to balance on it.
Every night. The urge is strong and never abates.
A wild turkey can live into its twenties. We don’t know how long she will live with her deformities. But the pleasure she still expresses just by being alive! Bright-eyed despite her crippled body, she is thoroughly enjoying the free life she is living now. She can’t run after grasshoppers, but she is adept at finding the coolest spot of green grass under a tree on which to lie in the summer heat, and the warmest sunny spot to sun herself on the cooler days. She will totter towards us in her ungainly fashion, asking to be near us; asking to be petted. Sometimes, she will completely succumb to the pleasure, settling into the ground, folding in her limber neck and closing her eyes in contentment.
As I stroke her, I am always amazed at the soft silkiness of her feathers. I am drawn into the iridescent beauty of them, with burnt orange highlights, each a work of art. It’s so interesting, the way our human brains work. We can see her as a thing to be sold and bring us money. As dinner or meat. As poultry or a bird. As an intelligent being, as a strong personality, or as another wonder of creation. How we are taught to see makes all the difference in how we treat other forms of Life.
Meanwhile, listening to the contented liquid gurgling sounds coming from under the willow tree next to the office cabin infuses the atmosphere, and myself, with a sense of companionship and peace.