A fascinating and beautiful insight into wild turkeys!
Yesterday, I published a couple of stories that demonstrated that close, loving bonds can form between different species, including an orang-utan and a dog, and a duck and a man.
By chance, Jean and I came across another example of cross-species bonding. This time between Joe Hutto, an American living in Florida, and a brood (is that the right description?) of newly-born wild turkeys. The first thing these tiny birds saw when they opened their eyes after breaking clear of their egg was Joe, and they immediately imprinted him as their ‘mother’.
Joe spent a complete year and more being ‘mother’ to these birds right up to the point where they naturally flew the nest, so to speak. Joe’s experiences led to a book, Illumination in the Flatwoods, and from that to a BBC Natural World special My Life as a Turkey, regrettably not available to viewers outside the UK.
But speaking to someone who did watch the BBC film, it was clear that it was a most beautiful and touching account of how young wild turkeys can bond to a human. Here’s part of the programme review in the British Guardian newspaper,
By Sam Wollaston, Guardian.co.uk
Joe Hutto’s life changed when a local farmer in the Florida flatlands where he lives left a stainless steel dog bowl full of wild turkey eggs on the porch of his cabin. Joe put them in an incubator, and waited. Some weeks later, cracks began to appear. This is the crucial time: “imprinting” only occurs in the first few moments after hatching. So Joe put his face down to the level of the opening eggs and the first poult emerged, wet and confused. Joe made a chirping, clucky noise, the poult looked him square in the eye, “and something very unambiguous happened in that moment”.
The little turkey stumbled and crawled across to Joe, and huddled up against his face. It recognised Joe as its mother. In the next few hours, Joe became mother to 15 more baby turkeys and remained so for the next 18 months. My Life as a Turkey: Natural World Special (BBC2) tells that story.
Across to the programme details from the BBC2 website (may not be available 26 days after the date of this article),
Biologist Joe Hutto was mother to the strangest family in the world, thirteen endangered wild turkeys that he raised from egg to the day they left home.
For a whole year his turkey children were his only companions as he walked them deep through the Florida Everglades. Suffering all the heartache and joy of any other parent as he tried to bring up his new family, he even learnt to speak their language and began to see the world through turkey eyes. Told as a drama documentary with an actor recreating the remarkable scenes of Joe’s life as a turkey mum.
Sam Wollaston of the Guardian continues,
It’s not hard to see how the little birds were taken in. Joe’s moustache does look a bit like feathers, he has a long scraggy neck, an understanding of the forest, and a tentative, birdlike walk. He takes them out, to catch their first grasshoppers; he teaches them how to roost. For Joe, as for any mother, parenthood is an emotional rollercoaster ride. There is the joy of seeing his babies grow, but almost constant worry. Grief too, when one is taken by a rat snake, and another by a hawk, and two more get sick (bird flu?) and die.
Adolescence arrives with all its associated problems. The males start fighting; only the toughest will get to mate. “I had no way of knowing how I was going to be part of this rite of passage,” says Joe. Steady now, Joe, let’s not take this too far, you’re not supposed to mate with any of them. For one, they’re your children. They’re also turkeys. That would be doubly wrong. Sometimes I think Joe spends too much time alone in the forest.
Quite so! However, the film was so beautifully shot that it was very, very easy to forget that this was a re-enactment of Joe’s original experience. That love is all about how you make someone, or in these cases, some other creature, feel. Another couple of pictures from the BBC website,
One final extract from the Sam Wollaston article in The Guardian newspaper,
My Life as a Turkey isn’t simply a wildlife film though. It’s not just about wild animals, it’s about one man’s relationship with wild animals, and that’s what makes it so fabulous. Serious animal behaviourists may not agree, but if you throw a human being in there, it all suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. I’m thinking Ring of Bright Water, Gorillas in the Mist, I’m definitely thinking Werner Herzog’s brilliant Grizzly Man about a man named Tim whose friendship with bears went wrong and he ended up inside one. My Life as a Turkey has something of Grizzly Man about it – a man obsessed, alone in a beautiful place, living with wild animals. But, although Joe was attacked, he didn’t end up inside one of his turkeys thankfully. There would have been a certain irony to that, especially if it had happened at Thanksgiving.
Anyway, it’s a lovely film – beautiful, charming, funny, sad, thought-provoking even. What thoughts did it provoke in me? That I need to go and see my mum.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above if you are outside the UK you are not able to watch the film via the BBC iPlayer system. But you can buy the book.
Available from Amazon, here’s just one of the reviews,
My review is not unbiased because Joe Hutto, author of “Illumination in the Flatwoods,” and I have been friends for almost 25 years.
Joe is the most humble man I’ve ever known. I am honored that he brought me the original manuscript to read. It was so beautiful I could have cried.
With the same graceful writing skills used by conservationists Aldo Leopold (“Sand County Almanac”) and Herbert Stoddard (“Memoirs of a Naturalist”), Joe gives a masterful mix of documentary-style nature reporting and heartfelt thoughts on the meaning of life. As dramatic as that sounds, I think most readers will agree that “Illumination in the Flatwoods” is a life-changing book.
You will never regret the dollars you spend to buy this book nor the time it takes you to read it. . .
Kathy McCord Cooley