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Flying Away

June 27, 2011
by

A couple weeks ago, Celeste flushed out a wild turkey hen from brush at the sanctuary. In a flurry of motion and flapping, the hen leaped in the air and took flight. There was grace and strength in that motion.

Every time I see a wild turkey fly, I think of what domestic white- and bronze-breasted turkeys lack, what has been taken from them by humans.

Wild TurkeysThese are wild turkeys. They are either the Eastern or Rio Grande subspecies. Every season, they congregate to meet and breed. The tom turkeys fill their chests with air, puffing up proudly for the hens. It’s a sight to behold, ten or twelve males with their flagging tails and deep-throat gobbles. They reside on the sanctuary, alongside the rescued turkeys.

These particular turkeys were most likely introduced to California. While there is controversy surrounding whether the wild turkeys in California are indeed native, there is no doubt that turkeys have been brought in for the sole purpose of hunting. Capturing a photo of these birds is bittersweet, knowing some may be felled by a  hunter’s arrow or bullet.

Wild turkeys can fly. They can mate naturally, fertilizing speckled eggs that will hatch out atrociously adorable turkey chicks. Wild turkeys can run, fast. They are tall, leggy birds. Up close, they look powerful.

Only superficially do they physically resemble domestic turkeys.

WalleWalle is a white-breasted turkey. He was born in an incubator and shipped through the postal service to a free-range turkey farm. Before he arrived, the first digits of his toes were cut off, as was a portion of his beak…all without pain relief, all to mitigate the side effects of unnatural living conditions.

As you can see from his picture, Walle is white, a color that, in the wild, would be like wearing a giant “Eat me” sign. White feather pigmentation is a genetically recessive trait, and would rarely be seen on a wild turkey. With the white color comes a “prettier” looking flesh. The color serves no purpose for the turkey. The sole reason for breeding white birds? So people didn’t find the look of the bird’s dead body as off-putting.

Walle walked off the free-range farm and ended up at the sanctuary. I fell in love with Walle the day he sat in my lap and crooned baby talk to me. Now he considers himself a big boy, though he is dwarfed in size by Morris, another white-breasted turkey.

Walle and Morris will never fly. They will never be able to mate naturally. Even if we wanted to house the male and female white or bronze-breasted turkeys together – we couldn’t. When a white-breasted tom turkey tries to mount a white-breasted hen, there is a good chance he will crush her. Or break his leg or hip. Or break hers. He can literally smother to death another turkey hen. What point is there to a species that cannot even survive the mating process long enough to produce viable offspring? None, except to sate the palate of humans.

Now, in the spring and early summer, the same hormones and instinct that drives wild toms to strut and preen, that encourages nest-building amongst the females…well, it’s the same for the domestic turkeys at the sanctuary. Except they have no outlet. Walle and Morris showcase their maleness for hours on end, and they direct their strong drive to mate at anyone who might be interested, including staff, volunteers and visitors. We may find it funny at times or strangely endearing, but it’s nothing more than a frustrated attempt at relief. It’s sad.

I wish more people could see wild and domestic turkeys up close. I wish they could sit with Morris, watch how ungainly and painfully large he is. How he struggles to get from Point A to Point B without getting out of breath. How a wild turkey takes off with such force that you can feel the vibrations in the ground and air. Or how Margaret, a hen from a breeding farm, nurtures all the young and ostracized chickens, because it is in her individual nature to be a mother, though on no breeding farm would she have been the first to meet her own chicks. How a bronze colored turkey hen struts through tall foxtail-laden grasses with her brood in tow. Or how Walle loves music, loves being sung to and how wild turkeys love to sing back.

At the end of the day, after the tours stop and the visitors go home (hopefully to make more compassionate decisions) all I wish for is to see Morris or Walle or Margaret fly. To do what comes so naturally to their wild cousins. To be a creature of the air and land, firmly present and then floating away.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Olivia permalink
    June 27, 2011 6:21 pm

    I love how you paint word pictures that accompany the snapshots of your friends, Marji. I can hear Sinatra Walle crooning to you … and Mother Hen Margaret clucking to her chicks.

    Had to laugh at the “atrociously adorable” combo. I’ve seen “outrageously adorable,” but hadn’t thought of “atrocious” as having other than a bad connotation — you know, like the acts done to sweet chickens and turkeys by love-deficient humans. Your odd adverb-adjective description of the turkey chicks assures me that, despite the emotional pain you feel, your sense of humor remains intact. :-)

    Whenever I visit a parrot at a store near me, I close my eyes, sing to him and visualize him flying free, alighting on the leafy branch of a tall tree somewhere in the Amazon, surrounded by his avian mates.

    • Marji permalink
      June 28, 2011 10:04 am

      Thanks, Olivia!

      Baby turkeys are, to me, so ugly they’re cute. I look at them and want to look away, but then I have to look at them some more. They are all legs and awkwardness. But there is such an intrinsic gentleness that I find wonderful, despite their almost alien weirdness.

      I love that you sing to the captive parrots. My heart aches for them, these social birds forced into social isolation.

  2. June 27, 2011 7:47 pm

    To take away their flight though they have wings, to impede and deny their ability to do many of the other things of living life…what a statement that makes about human animals.

    • Marji permalink
      June 28, 2011 10:07 am

      I’ve been asked if me being vegan makes me want domestic farmed animals to die out. Certainly I love the individual turkeys I have met. They are not meant to be, though, and they would never survive without human intervention. The immense suffering the white- and bronze-breasted turkeys endure simply by being born is patently unjust and unfair.

      It is a sad statement, indeed.

  3. Kate permalink
    June 28, 2011 3:11 am

    There are also heritage breeds of turkeys which were traditionally raised on small farms, before the advent of commercial farming. They are smaller in size than the broad breasted varieties and can mate naturally quite well. I have one narragansett turkey hen. We had a tom but he died just before our hen laid a clutch of eight eggs in our barn. I was convinced she was mismanaging the eggs, because it seemed like every time I checked on her, several of them weren’t under her while she was setting…but 28 days later (yesterday) seven of the eight eggs hatched, and now she is dutifully caring for the six babies (one died soon after hatching and before I got out to the barn to check on them).

    Here is some info about narragansett turkeys:

    http://www.albc-usa.org/cpl/narragansett.html

    Incidentally, they breed white turkeys because dark feathers leave black dots all over the skin of the bird after plucking, which doesn’t look as pretty after the bird is roasted. So, saying they want the bird to look “less off-putting” is not really accurate, unless you find a roasted turkey off-putting to begin with…which I guess you probably do since you’re vegan, but most people don’t….lol. I am not vegan but I find the commercial breeds of both turkeys and chickens to be ridiculous monstrosities, which is why I raise traditional breeds here on my tiny farm.

    • Marji permalink
      June 28, 2011 10:51 am

      There are royal palms and bourbon reds at the sanctuary too, all raised for slaughter, all who thankfully found a way to escape the farms. Some of the larger toms do have problems mating but as you pointed out, they are smaller and more capable of doing what turkeys do.

      Leland was one of my favorites: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rinalia/3154611697/in/set-72157606450726654. He died when he was probably 10-12 years old. He wouldn’t have been able to roost in trees or anything and although he could physically mate, he never tried to with the other turkey hens in the barn. He loved people more. :)

      “Incidentally, they breed white turkeys because dark feathers leave black dots all over the skin of the bird after plucking, which doesn’t look as pretty after the bird is roasted. So, saying they want the bird to look “less off-putting” is not really accurate”

      But you just proved my point. The white coloration IS less off putting to consumers.

      • Kate permalink
        June 28, 2011 12:21 pm

        Well, I guess we are arguing about semantics here…”less off-putting” implies that a turkey carcass is off-putting,and is either more or less so depending on the color of the feathers. Which sort of implies that we are all a little grossed out by turkey carcasses. I personally don’t find turkey carcasses off-putting, and am fine with birds of either feather color (we don’t raise white birds) but I guess the white bird would be “more fine” lol.

  4. Wendy permalink
    June 28, 2011 8:45 am

    This is gorgeously written. Thank you for this.

  5. June 28, 2011 6:53 pm

    Marji, beautifully written. Painting a picture (thanks Olivia) that draws us into the life-force demonstrated so clearly by Walle and Morris. A life force, admittedly at times “atrociously adorable”, that is present in every non-human I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Yet most humans will snuff it out to “sate the palate”. Such disconnect.

    “… except to sate the palate of humans.” Make that poorly/ badly educated palate of humans. From a young age our palates are educated by what we’re fed and given to drink. From the hands of our parents who feed us what Society dictates (for most of us – some will have parents that went against Society’s gustatory wishes, showed Society the middle finger so-to-speak). But who enjoyed their first cup of coffee? Or beer? Or full-bodied Shiraz? It’s a tragedy that we are taught that the flesh of another living animal is “enjoyable”. It’s a tragedy that we will so carelessly snuff out the life of another because we’ve been taught, and continue to teach ourselves, that it tastes good. And that poorly educated taste buds are enough reason to do it. It’s an even bigger tragedy that we don’t require any of those innocent lives for survival. To the contrary, our health is better on a plant-based, non-violent diet.

    Killing for taste. I’ve been there. Done that. And it leaves a sour taste in your mouth that never goes away. To sate the palate indeed.

    • Marji permalink
      June 29, 2011 6:47 pm

      Well put, Harry.

      I do not begrudge them, but I do wish my parents started me out on a plant-based diet instead of the other way around.

      The thought that so many nonhumans suffer and die for nothing more than a learned taste is awful and sad.

  6. July 7, 2011 8:30 am

    Lovely piece Marji! And I echo your sentiments about the regret of not being raised on better (real) food. I don’t hold a grudge either as I know the choices weren’t as obvious as they are today.

    But the turkeys… There’s a small “livestock” farm close to me that I brave entry in now and then. The area is posted with signs that say “Meat animals! Not pets!”. The owner caters to mostly an ethnic crowd and supplies goats/birds for holiday sacrifices, etc. :(

    Anyway, last November there were two gorgeous white turkeys that just melted my heart knowing their fate. So intelligent and friendly – I imagine they came from some small family “hobby” farm and were treated in “special” kind ways.

    As I was interacting with them and even contemplating a “purchase/rescue” the man gruffly announced they were already sold – And “might just as well be on the platter” for where they were going. (sigh).

    He also said that because of their breeding that they wouldn’t live much longer anyway… I gathered that domestically bred turkeys are like “broiler” chickens – with lives cut short due to their body weight and genetics. (?)

    For future reference – Do you Marji or anyone else know if this is the case?

    I love it that you were able to photo and share the scene with the wild ones… Let’s hope they all managed to escape the arrows, bullets and other harmful intents of humans! So beautiful!

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