This year’s turkeys

The turkeys have been tough going this year.

At first, we thought we were going to have it easy because the neighbor we bought a few Standard Bronze poults from last year said she’d have plenty more this spring. When her hen unexpectedly stopped laying just at the critical time – it’s like she knew when Thanksgiving was – we had to go to Plan B.

Craigslist, the source of Plans B for just about everything, yielded a source for fertilized turkey eggs from a turkey-keeper in Orleans, one who presumably didn’t give his turkeys access to a calendar. We bought six and entrusted them to Queenie, our broody Buff Orpington hen.

Unfortunately, only one both hatched and survived, so we needed Plan C.

Our local feed store, Cape Cod Feed and Supply, gets Standard Bronze turkeys from Murray McMurray, the Iowa hatchery, every spring. They were due the first week of June.

The batch of thirty poults somehow got misplaced by the postal service, and spent three days in transit. A third of them died, and many of the ones who survived seemed injured or ill. We took five home, but lost two in the first few days. The feed store had two left, and gave them to us.

At first, they all looked like they’d make it, but then it became clear that two had injuries. Because our turkey pen isn’t predator-proof, we depend on the turkeys’ ability to fly to protect them – a high roost bar keeps them out of harm’s way. If a bird can’t fly, we can’t keep it.

Yesterday, we decided we had to cull the two injured poults, and Kevin did the deed. Kevin does most of the killing around here, something I’m very grateful for. Although I do enough to prove that I can, he’s much less likely to hesitate or to miss. When you’re killing something, it’s important that you do neither.

Now we’re down to a flock of four, and they all look healthy – although one is comically larger than the other three. Unfortunately, the size discrepancy makes husbandry decisions hard. The big one is ready for the pen, but the little ones still need the brooder. We can put them all in day camp, but having one strong flyer means we need to beef up security.

Kevin solved the problem by cordoning off a section of the hoophouse with oyster tray covers, and today the birds are wandering outside the box for the very first time. They’re sniffing around, pecking at green things, and giving us that characteristic one-eyed stare.

We’ve got a couple more cold nights this week, and we’ll use the hoophouse as day camp and put the birds back in the brooder in the evening. By the weekend, though, it should be warm enough to put them in the turkey pen for the duration.

We’ve got four healthy-looking birds to grow out, but along the way we lost five fertilized eggs and four poults. If there’s one thing we’ve learned doing all this, though, it’s that animals die. And whether it’s your fault (as it often has been) or not (mostly the case this time), you have to be able to cope.

Regular exposure to death inures you to it. That makes it easier to deal with livestock because, as our friend Jen says, “If you have livestock you have dead stock.” But it’s disconcerting to find your reaction to something that used to be very upsetting becoming increasingly muted. You lose something when the death of a small creature bothers you less.

Kevin and I are both on our guard. “Inured” can become “hardened,” but only if you let it. A little time watching a turkey discover grass, or giving a pig a back scratch, or feeding clover to a hen, is, for me, the antidote. An animal dependent on you is an appeal to your better nature.

Right now, we have thirteen chickens, four turkeys, and three pigs dependent on us, and I hope my better nature is up to it.

4 people are having a conversation about “This year’s turkeys

  1. I think probably that it’s ok to become inured to something over which you have no control- probably better for you in the long run. Less stressful, I mean.

    I also think that your willingness to take on the husbandry of other creatures and give them as good a life as you can while they are on the planet speaks of your better nature.

    You’re more okay than you think you are.

  2. I don’t see it as becoming inured as much as it stops having the shock value, so while still grieving for the lost life, it no longer feels so much like a sucker punch.

    The first time I had to put a dog down I cried for weeks and was a total mess. I was swamped with guilt and felt like the universe was a cruel place. When I put down my old lady dog, Bridget, at the end of February, sure, I cried, but I was able to move on past the grief quicker and was not put off balance by it. It is not that I love any less, but that the process and my understanding of it is different, so I can miss her and wish she were still here without being incapacitated by it.

    There is a huge difference between becoming calloused and uncaring of the feelings and individuality of the animals in our care, and coming to accept that death happens and it does not have to be devastating.

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