Bonding with wild turkeys

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Just in time for Thanksgiving, comes the true-life tale of a man who raised a rafter of sixteen wild turkeys, gaining a newfound understanding and deep appreciation for them in the process.    My Life as a Turkey aired on PBS last week and shows how naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto immersed himself in the lives of his young charges, becoming part of a strange “tribe” for 18 months. Hutto has a strong interest in imprinting—most obvious in birds such as geese and turkeys, that imprint on their mother and follow them everywhere.  Although farmers and others had taken advantage of this phenomenon for years, Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz was the first to document the imprinting process. The PBS film is a reenactment of the book Joe Hutto wrote about his experience, Illumination in the Flatwoods.  In it, he incubates the eggs which a farmer has left at his house in the Florida Everglades and then raises the hatchlings to adulthood.  The story chronicles Hutto’s gradual understanding of turkey communication, behavior, as well as the threats facing “his” young brood. After a rat snake manages to squeeze into the pen where Hutto houses the young turkeys, or poults, and kills one, Hutto realizes he must not only reinforce the structure, but also spend every waking minute with the poults, from dawn to dusk.  Indeed, his entire life revolves around the young turkeys.  He bonds with them to such a degree that when they reach the stage of their life where they launch into flight and settle into a tree to roost, he feels left out and clamors up the tree to join them. With their comically gangly necks coupled with surprisingly graceful bodies, the young wild turkeys follow Hutto through the Florida Everglades.  They recoil yet are fascinated when they encounter their first dead animal and seemingly are also bothered by a tree stump, which they inspect for a long while and about which they make many turkey “comments.” One of the most beautifully filmed and entertaining scenes shows Hutto strolling alongside the turkeys as they go on a “grasshopper hunt.”  With barely a pause in their stride, the turkeys expertly snatch the grasshoppers from their grassy perches, as seen in the clip below. Imprinting on ones’ parent early in life is a survival strategy.  But when young animals imprint on humans, the result is often that when the animal reaches adulthood, it is unprepared to live on its own or it interacts inappropriately with its own species or with humans, often resulting in the animal’s death.  To...

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