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Turkeys in the yard, and memories of the past

Bill Meredith

"Of my three-score years and ten, twenty will not come again."
…A. E. Houseman, when contemplating cherry blossoms as a young man.

"Of my four-score years and one, another autumn has begun."
…B. Meredith, for no apparent reason.

(Sept, 2014) In the "The Family Circus" comic strip last week, Grandma was bustling about the kitchen, and her little granddaughter remarked, "Grandma says she’s seen it all, done it all, and heard it all. She just can’t remember it all." I can sympathize with Grandma. You live a long time, you experience lots of things, and then when your eyes get dim and your ears don’t work any more, it’s easy to stop paying attention… especially if you think you’ve seen it all. So, at 7:25 A.M. on the 26th of July, my mind was miles away, and if my wife hadn’t been looking out of the kitchen window just then, we would have missed the turkeys.

There were seven of them… and adult female and six young poults… and they came out of the thicket at the west end of the yard, where the locust tree fell over the week before. The mother was nearly three feet tall when she stretched her neck. She was wary and alert, placing her feet carefully as she walked and bobbing her head backward and forward with each step, watching for danger both at ground level and above. The chicks were about half the size of chickens, and they scurried about as kids do everywhere, pecking at anything that might be edible or otherwise interesting. Their wing and tail feathers were visible but not yet big enough for flying; if they got too far away, the mother would cluck and they would come to her at top speed, flapping their wings and occasionally getting a few inches off the ground. They stopped for a few minutes to peck at seeds under the bird feeder, and then wandered out of sight around the corner of the garage. They came again at the same time the next day, and one of the chicks actually came up onto the front porch and ate some fuchsia blossoms that had fallen from the hanging basket. Later, our granddaughter laid a trail of sunflower seeds down the walk from the birdfeeder to the porch, like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, and we had high hopes that the entire flock would come onto the porch the next day. They did come back; but, alas, by the time they got there the chipmunks had stolen all of the sunflower seeds. Since then, they’ve come by nearly every day, sometimes in the evening as well as morning, and occasionally I hear them clucking in the Great Forest behind the house when I am working in the garden.

The six young ones are probably the survivors of a larger group. The average female turkey lays about a dozen eggs, and incubates them for 28 days; they would have hatched in late May or early June. The chicks can walk as soon as they are dry, and the mother would have taken them away from the nest as soon as possible, for the broken eggshells attract predators. The little ones peck instinctively at any small object that moves, and also recognize seeds as food. They recognize snakes, hawks and small mammals as enemies, but probably don’t distinguish between raccoons, possums, foxes and feral cats. The ones in my yard ignored passing cars, but ran away if people walked by on the street.

Watching the turkeys from the kitchen window, it would be easy to assume the mother is behaving as a human mother would with a group of unruly pre-schoolers… watching, teaching, caring, thinking ahead to avoid known hazards… but this is not the case. Most of their behavior is instinctive rather than learned. Their mother has guarded them successfully so far, as directed by the pre-wired neural connections in her brain; but there is nothing in her behavior that can be explained as maternal love or knowledge of the future. I learned this in an odd way over 50 years ago.

About the time I started graduate school at the University of Maryland, a biologist at the Beltsville Agricultural Center was studying hearing in birds, and had surgically deafened several turkeys for his experiments. When his study was finished, he had a group of perfectly healthy turkeys that were normal in every way except that they couldn’t hear. A young German biologist named Wolfgang Schleidt had just arrived at the Center to study the behavior of baby turkeys; he needed some female turkeys to sit on eggs and hatch them, and he was happy to take the deaf turkeys for that purpose. He put them in nest boxes with fertile eggs, and they cooperated nicely for the required period of time; but, to his surprise and dismay, when the eggs hatched, the foster-mother turkeys immediately attacked the babies and pecked them to death. Being a good scientist, Schleidt asked the obvious question: why did this happen? He immediately designed several further experiments, and discovered that female turkeys do not automatically know what baby turkeys look like; they recognize them only when they hear them peeping. Baby turkeys begin peeping inside the eggs a few hours before they hatch; the mother hears them, and recognizes them. She is very protective at this time, and she assumes that any small moving object that doesn’t peep is a potential predator… a rat, or perhaps a weasel… so she attacks it. This explained why the deaf turkeys had killed their hatchlings, and it made Dr. Schleidt internationally known among students of animal behavior.

I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Schleidt; when I completed my thesis research, he was one of the professors who participated in my final oral exam. That event happened 47 years ago, but it still runs through my mind every time I see a turkey. In fact, the first time we saw this family in the yard, I remarked to my wife, "Well, at least we know the mother isn’t deaf."

It has been nearly a month since they first appeared. The young ones are now teen-agers, already bigger than chickens and able to fly short distances. Their voices are changing, but they still peep to their mother, and she is still protective. It is tempting to think of them in human terms, like a kind parent patiently teaching her children how to get along in life; but I know better. So although "my" turkeys are endearing to watch, I cannot allow myself to become anthropomorphic about them. After all, Dr. Schleidt is still living; his photo stared sternly at me from his website when I entered his name in my computer. He would expect more than that from me.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith