Here a turkey has gotten into the chicken area.
I knew so little about turkeys when Jeanette started her job that the experience prompted me to learn more about these fascinating creatures. Given the time of the year, I thought it might be fun to talk about all the lesser known and lesser appreciated aspects of the animal that will be the centerpiece of many people's meals this Thursday.
One of the first aspects that struck me, and that Xander and Luka have said is their favorite part of turkey behavior, is their trilling and chortling. While sometimes turkeys do make sounds that are kind of like "gobble," the ululations are far more varied than I expected. Jeanette's favorite aspect of the birds is their highly social nature: they love to be in groups and congregate with each other. When going into the coops at night, they will move from one side to another to be next to certain other birds and in one case, a particular turkey hangs close to another bird who is blind, helping her find her way to and from the coop. They also gather close to humans, following us around on the farm with a very endearing expectancy. It's quite a sight to see a large herd of these animals gathering before you on a sunset evening in front of the fields. Though it could certainly just be me, I've come to enjoy the waddling and loping way they move and the kind of bouncy gracefulness of their stride and head-bobbing.
More broadly, as I've investigated the animal, I've found it was indigenous to North America, though the name "turkey" comes from European colonists. They had never seen such an animal and resorted to the convention of calling exotic animals "turkeys" after the country "Turkey," which was the gateway for unusual animals to enter Europe. According to archaeological records, Southwestern Native Americans raised and domesticated the birds, while woodland tribes did not. (An investigation of that discrepancy might be interesting.) The animal figures prominently in many Native Southwestern myths. In one such story, the turkey brings the sun down to warm the earth, but singes his head in the process, explaining why turkeys have bald heads.
In an Apache legend, turkeys are the ones responsible for bringing grain and corn to humans. One exception to the Southwest-East divide on turkeys is the Cherokee, who held the animal in great cultural prominence.
European colonists found the turkey easy prey and killed them by the millions, much as they did with the passenger pigeon and bison. The turkeys' relative slowness and tendency to gather in groups in the face of danger led hunters of the time to widely deride the animal. (Even one Cherokee myth seems to paint the animal as unintelligent.) This is often seen as the derivation for the use of "turkey" as an insult - if I call a book, movie, or person a "real turkey," this is not meant as a compliment. At the same time, the bird has become identified with a day of national Thanksgiving. How do we explain this tension?
In her book, More than a Meal: the Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, Karen Davis has a complex hypothesis that attempts to answer that question. Using the theorist Rene Girard, she argues the following. Humans, of course, are animals, but wish to see themselves as above animality. We thus project our discomfort and self-loathing about our animal nature onto other animals and punish and abuse them in order to exorcise the animal in ourselves. The Turkey Thanksgiving ritual is thus a massive example of the "scapegoat" complex, acted out year after year. Whether you believe Davis (reviews of her book can be found here), it is incontestable that we "culturally encode" animals all the time and use them as symbols of our own thoughts and desires. For example, why are virile males called "stallions" or "studs" and in recent years older, sexual women are called "cougars"? It's all relative, too: while dogs are coddled and clothed in sweaters in the United States, they are considered filthy harbingers of disease in India.
Otherwise, there are many facts about turkeys that I never knew. They can actually fly quite well, and up into trees. They can live for about ten years and some have wingspans of up to six feet. You can tell a turkey's gender by the shape and color of its poop. And though Ben Franklin praised turkeys and disparaged eagles, he didn't actually lobby for the turkey to be the national emblem. (For more great turkey tidbits, read here.)
There's a burgeoning field of turkey jokes, which I can't help but include.
Q: What costume did the turkey wear every Halloween?
A: He was always a-gobblin'.
Q: What's the difference between a turkey and an owl?
A: Turkeys don't give a hoot.
Q: What's Superturkey's real name?
A: Cluck Kent
Q: How did Tom Turkey do at bat?
A: He hit a fowl ball.
Q: What does a Turkey drink from on New Year's Eve?
A: A gobblette.
You get the idea, though I have a whole book of these. Let me know if you crave more! I'm not hard to find.
In all, I've really come to appreciate the turkey. Going as a family to help put turkeys away or bring them food and water have been great bonding experiences. Watching the sunsets while helping the animals into their coops can be sublimely serene. Recently, we all arrived to find a large group of turkeys had gone down the road, over a bridge, and down by the river. It took all four of us to guide them back up, and when we did, they took off in their stilt-legged waddle, accompanied by their exuberant chortles. We all laughed and cheered. Just as we'd brought the turkeys back together, they brought us together too.
Happy Thanksgiving! Until the next post, take care.