Friday, July 20, 2012

Life's Lessons through Turkeys...

Sorry it's been so long since my last post.  Things have been busy lately, and I admit, I let the habit slide...but I'll try to post something at least every couple of days from now on, even if its just the day to day stuff.

As most of you know, last year we added some turkeys to our self-reliant experiment on the homestead.  Our first generation turkeys are 2 males and 3 females.  Of the females, we have 1 White Midget, 1 Blue Slate, and 1 Black Spanish.  All are heritage breeds.  Early on in this experiment, Mountain Man and I decided that if we were going to breed and keep chicks to sustain our supply, we wanted them to be naturally hatched by their mothers.  Two reasons:  1- we did not want to contribute to the "breeding out" of their natural instincts, and 2- in the name of self-reliance, why would you ever add more to your own chore plate by mothering chicks that could be mothered by their own MOTHERS?  Duh. :)

So, when it came for setting time, you can just imagine our excitement! The White Midget hen started setting first, followed soon after by Black hen, then Blue.  We counted down the days.  Then, one day we woke up, and Black Hen was wandering around.  As we got closer, we saw tons of cute little baby chicks!  Then, Blue Hen's chicks arrived.  So cute!  But, wait...shouldn't White Hen's chicks have hatched by now?  We went over to look at hers - 4 chicks were hatched, but 2 of them were dead.  And she was still setting on 4 eggs.  Her chicks started to cry and wander about.  When Blue Hen came too close to White, she did nothing to defend her chicks, and before we knew it, Blue Hen had 2 extra chicks, and White was back to none.  Why did she let her chicks go?  Was she trying to make sure they were cared for while she continued to set?  While trying to decide what to do, we looked up some information on the internet.  While many websites listed them as good mothers, there were quite a few blogs that stated that their hens had issues with hatchability.  So, with this new info in mind, we decided that we'd give her a few more days with the eggs, then we'd take them away.  Which we did (with much difficulty - she did NOT want to give them up).  We shooed her out of the nest - hens lose a lot of weight during the period of setting because they don't get up except to drink, eat a little and dust bathe once or twice, so we wanted to get her out and eating again.  But, she just crawled back into her nest.  We thought, she'll snap out of it on her own.  So, we left her there. Every morning I'd pass by her on my way to water the garden.  Every day, she'd hiss at me.  About a week later, when I passed by, I decided I needed to get her out to stay out because I needed the garden space.  What I saw, I will never forget.  She was laying in her spot, head down, pale, eyes sunken in, and listless.  She looked dead.  It was then I realized - she was depressed.  She'd given up.  I tried to pick her up, but she hissed and stood defensive over her non-existent eggs.  I grabbed a stick and gently nudged her out of her spot, to which she reacted by charging me, with claws bared and wings flapping wildly against me.  She was angry!  Angry at me, angry at the WORLD!  I closed the gate to the garden where her nest was so she couldn't return to her spot.  But, she tried, over and over again, for several more days.  She paced the fence; she tried to fly over, but was too weak to make it.  I thought she was going to die.

Eventually, though, she gave up.  The other two mothers had joined together into a mini-flock to protect the chicks.  When disaster struck, one mother would face the danger while the other stood over the chicks with wings outstretched to protect them.  The black hen was by far the best mother, but the blue hen became a very good mother shortly after joining up with the black, which we thought was INCREDIBLE.  They LEARN from each other.  Much like having older siblings or parents, wild turkeys have older members in their flock to teach them lessons to pass on to each other in order to survive.  Domestic turkeys don't normally have these members.  Anyways, the white hen, after snapping out of her funk, joined the others as a "flock" mother.  From them, she learned to be protective of the chicks, and cared for them as if they were her own (hers had died soon after they left her from one of those "disasters" I referred to earlier).

So, imagine our excitement AGAIN when about a month later, White Hen started laying again.  Should we let her set?  Maybe it was a fluke, maybe she's learned more...maybe they get more instinctive with, she laid 9 eggs and started to set again.  And we waited.  Today was the due date.  Two eggs had dead chicks in them.  One chick had hatched yesterday, but seemed to have some neurological issues, and was blind.  6 other eggs never hatched.  White Hen pushed the blind chick out of her nest this morning and started to peck at her.  The chick began flipping around on her back and gasping for air, so I took it inside - my INTENTION was to have the chick die in warmth and comfort.  But that little bugger just kept walking in circles and PEEPING.  LOUDLY.  After 3 hours, I couldn't take it anymore, and took her BACK to her mother with the resolution that if she died, then nature would have been kinder than I was - if she was left untended to outside, she would die of the cold long before she would die of starvation.  So, I took her back to the white hen, who perked up as soon as she heard the peep.  I placed the chick beside her from the other side of the fence.  She managed to walk through the fence hole, albeit in a very drunken fashion.  The white hen scooted the chick under her feathers and softly crooned to her as if she was in LOVE.  It was touching to see - I was elated and heartbroken at the same time.  Elated at seeing her joy, finally, in being a mother, but heartbroken, knowing that her chick would not make it long term.

I checked on her later that day.  She was out of her nest and standing guard while her little blind, mentally incapacitated chick lay basking in the sun next to her mama - she had left her eggs and committed to her one live chick.  Lesson number 1 learned.

Tonight I checked on her once more at dusk.  Blind chick was walking in circles, peeping loudly for guidance.  White hen was laying in front of her, cooing patiently for her to snuggle in.  It was getting cold.  The chick was visibly tired and started to give up - she lay down, then stood up, circled, then lay down again.  White hen kept cooing.  All of a sudden, the blind chick stopped crying out and listened.  She craned her head to one side, then the other.  She got up, and started to walk slowly and deliberately.  She started to veer to the side and stopped.  She listened again to her mother's coo.  She took another straight step, then faltered again to the left.  She cried out loudly, and once again, her mother cooed.  Blind chick took a run for it and veered into a circle, but JUST grazed her mother's downy feathers as she turned.  She stopped, peeped softly, turned her body into the feathers, and disappeared into the fold.  White Hen cooed a couple more times, lowered her head, and closed her eyes.

I'm writing this down more as a record for myself than anything else.  I wanted to remember this moment, this connection that I feel to this Turkey Mother.  I've learned so much from her.  And I feel for her.  Turkey Mother has had the divine gift of motherhood nearly bred out of her.  Though her love and desire for motherhood is as strong as any other mother, her instincts are very much lacking.  And I relate.  I've felt the depression, the hopelessness, the sting of losing a baby.  And I've felt the anger.  I've felt the joy of receiving a child.  And the worry of them being okay...or the peace of knowing that they are safe within my arms.

Yes, sometimes I feel EXACTLY like this bird.  Like my instincts, too, have been stripped away, with Culture playing down the divinity of motherhood.  We are connected, she and I.  Like White Hen, my pregnancies were not instinctive, nor were my deliveries.  Natural childbirth is against the norm.  Breastfeeding is as natural and instinctive as one could get, you would think.  Except it's not.  Shouldn't we just KNOW how to feed our children?  And enjoy it?  But, we don't.  These were our divine gifts - where did they go?

Who are we, that we could ever think that it is okay, no, that it is OUR RIGHT to take this gift away from our Turkey Mothers!  The way that we've manipulated animals is cruel and it IS heartbreaking.  And what we are doing to ourselves is worse...when will we stop listening to the murmurs of Culture in our ears and start listening to our instincts once again?  Our survival just might depend on it...


  1. This is what I think would be hard about raising animals. The story is so sad but sweet. People think we are crazy about our home birth and how I only breastfeed. Like you it is difficult for me but worth the effort. Miss you guys. Wish we lived closer. Casey and I installed the insulation in our house. Crazy times.

    1. Jen, I'm excited for you guys to finally have some good luck flowing your way! We wish you were closer as well. Tell us when you are around - we'd drive up to visit! :)

  2. Wow! Great story! These are the kinds of stories (memories) that will stick with you. Any more posts to come? This is very touching and heartwarming. Hope everything’s going well with you and your family.

    - Darren Lanphere -