Monday, November 21, 2005

Our National Bird?

"You don't get an eagle by merging two turkeys." -- Tom Peters

Perhaps not, but then why would you want to? Turkeys are beautiful, charismatic, inquisitive, delicious birds. Can you say the same thing about the glorified vulture that we call the bald eagle? True enough, turkeys have gained a reputation for stupidity, but anyone who's really gotten to know them knows that that's not the case. Well, not entirely, anyway. In fact, there was a time when turkeys had a shot at taking their rightful place at the table - so to speak - as our national bird. In the words of Benjamin Franklin:

I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.

And he went on. According to feathersite:

Benjamin Franklin campaigned to make the turkey the national bird in 1784. He described it as "a Bird of Courage" that would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards "who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on," although he conceded that turkeys are "a little vain and silly, but not the worse emblem for that."

Clearly, Benjamin Franklin understood turkeys (or "turkey lurkeys" if you're not into the whole brevity thing). Had the revolutionary war actually been fought in turkey yards across the country, any British Soldier dressed like this?

Doomed. I mean my god, can you imagine?? Buttoned breeches? Long tailed coat? Flintlock musket? This is like a turkey lurk dream buffet. Can you imagine trying to pack your gunpowder and get a shot off, surrounded by a flock of thirty pound turkeys pecking at your gun, your jacket tails, your buttoned breeches, your powder horn. Those beaks are sharp! And if your uniform had any dangly, shiny metal bits, medals for instance? Forgedaboudit. Turkeys can jump, man!! Certainly, without constant vigilance, the turkeys would at least have your buttoned breeches off in no time. And if the turkeys had been in the pig poo again right before you came marching into that turkey yard.... Just doomed.

Which is why I think that anyone who still seriously thinks that the eagle was the best choice for our national bird is seriously deranged.

My turkey story starts like this:

So I'm in Agway one day, looking at, let's say, chicken waterers. And all spring long Agway has been selling a procession of baby chickens and ducks and geese and whatnot. Today in the cage are these funny looking chicks, and so I'm like what kind of chicks are those?

They're turkeys. (Technically that makes them poults. Technically.)

Really? I'll take two.

You should take at least three. They're driving me nuts.

OK, give me three then.

And that was the start of a beautiful relationship. It turns out that poults think that whoever feeds them is their mom. So as soon as they were big enough to live outside of their little cage, wherever I went they would run after me. So cute!! I had planted some red clover and the little turkey lurks, who were maybe four or five weeks old, would spend hours eating the little baby clovers. As they got older they would spend their days hunting for bugs in a little pack. I could always find them by listening to the "choop", "choop" noise that they would call to each other, back and forth, so that they wouldn't lose each other.

If you want to see turkeys hunting, rent Jurassic Park and imagine the velociraptors with feathers, wattles and snoods. Then you'll be able to see the raptors as my three turkeys hunting in their little pack; looking at you in that cock-eyed way; trying to devour anything that moves in front of them. Clearly the animators of that movie spent a lot of time hanging out with turkey lurks. And if you don't buy that, keep in mind that Dr. Grant first describes a velociraptor as a six foot turkey.


And so I guess you can see that I have a thing for turkeys.

Much has been made recently of pasturing chickens as a way of growing meat more sustainably. It is hard to think of ways in which the turkey is not the superior bird for this task. Turkeys range farther and longer than chickens. They eat more greens, they eat more bugs and they eat whole acorns. Which is pretty cool, by the way, I mean the acorn thing. I have a feeling that once turkeys are six weeks old or so, they really only need supplemental feed as a treat if they have enough access to pasture and woodland. My long term goal is to produce a pound of turkey for each pound of whole corn that I feed. And they're pretty easy to herd, so you can move them around the farm in a rotational scheme if you want. Try herding chickens sometime.

Furthermore, turkeys have wide ranging food preferences that can be utilized in different seasons. They'll make good use of quality pasture spring through fall. They have to be the most efficient way of turning the huge midsummer grasshopper crop into quality food. In the fall, they can fatten on acorns, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, wild grapes and what have you. They also love any type of loose clothing or dangling hair, buttons, anything shiny. They will eat your pen if you're writing near them (or at least they'll try) . They go for screwdrivers and ratchets big time, which can really speed up chores around the farm.

One day I was walking in the pasture when I came upon the turkeys eating a small greenish thing. At first I thought they had killed a frog. Then I realized that they were devouring a pile of pig manure. Then they tried to eat my T-shirt. Ewww! We learned to avoid them when they'd been in the poo again. You can smell it on them. Trust me.

Anyway, we'll be raising more turkeys. Did you guess? We're going to raise 20 heritage models next year, probably the old-fashioned bronze (this year I had broad-breasted bronze birds). Long term we'd like to do many more than that. I'd like to try marketing the smaller turkey hens as a roasting bird in late summer or early fall as an alternative to roasting a chicken for a family meal. They should be a reasonable size then - big enough to feed a family but not your massive holiday bird. Currently, most turkey hens in the big commercial operations never make it past poult stage because the males make a larger holiday bird.

So when I sit down to my Thanksgiving day meal this year, I will give thanks for turkey lurks, our rightful national bird. I'll look forward to the heritage birds we'll be raising next year. I'll hear their soft "chew chew" in my head. I miss them already.


Anonymous Jen Strong said...

Happy Thanksgiving Brad! Hope the Turkeys stay out of the poo!

12:32 AM  
Blogger jon tupy said...

Hey Brad, of those 20 heritage old-fashioned bronze turkeys that you will be raising next year, how many will be for sale to eager patrons on the west coast?? ;)

Good luck with everything, your farm sounds like it is becoming everything you had hoped for.


2:37 PM  
Blogger Candy Minx said...

I think it was Wade Davis who suggested that the origins of religion came from our knowledge that what we loved was what kept us alive. that our rituals were born of the mixture of love for animals and that we need to eat them, sacrifice them for our own survival. (One River?)

This sounds wonderful and fun. I want a turkey too! Hope you do do a service and can ship them to Chicago. My boyfriend is already reeling from his crash course in organic farming and my rejection of totalitarian agriculture and now I want to FedEx a turkey?...the poor guy, but he thinks organic food tastes better. Are we alone in this belief?

Have you ever read margeret Visser? I have some links to ha couple of her online interviews at my she wrote a lovely essay(among many lovely essays) about turkeys in The Ways We Are. she is self described as a "anthropologist of daily life". I think you'd enjoy her work, especially about turkeys.


10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

does(can)a wild turkey eat acorns whole or do they crack them somehow?

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hmmm... turkey as a national bird.. i dont think it suits at all with your country..

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