Wild turkey hen and young from John James AUDUBON's Birds of America, 1840.
I suppose one should be forgiven for thinking about turkeys at Christmas but I wonder how many realise how much the wild turkey is part of our rural landscape, so much so that Americans now come out here to the Bay of Plenty to hunt them.
When I first came to the Bay of Plenty, I was much taken by the mobs of wild turkeys wandering about the district. I was especially interested in those wandering about my neighbours’ farms but soon learned that the turkeys were not so wild that my neighbour’s did not have a propriety interest in them.
Turkeys were introduced to New Zealand around the 1890s. In those days, until around the 1950s, most farms raised a few pigs and had a mob of turkeys along with “chooks” and ducks to give a greater self sufficiency than is apparent on most farms today.
The turkeys were half domesticated and half wild in that the mobs were allowed to roam free but were occasionally fed maize. The chore of rounding up the mob to feed them usually fell to the younger members of the family. In this way the turkeys were prevented from wandering too far and prevented a range war with neighbours who could not resist shooting turkeys that strayed over the boundary. “Shooting each other’s turkeys” has become enshrined in the local patois and now means simply fighting with one’s neighbours.
As well as adding some variety to the diet, the birds served a useful service on the farm as biological control agents, moving across the pasture cleaning up crickets and other insect pests. They were usually culled in the autumn after they had stopped eating crickets which tainted the meat. With the advent of a different type of farming, the mobs were neglected and left to run wild, that is, until people like me came along with a somewhat different outlook.
The first summer after I arrived, a neighbour, knowing I wanted some turkeys, finally got around to delivering me a sack containing a hen and three or four chicks that had been demolishing her garden. There began a memorable relationship that taught me some real lessons about their behaviour and, more significantly, something about the domestic contract between farmers and animals, a much neglected environmental issue.
The next spring, nature took its course, a gobbler turned up and from small beginnings I soon managed to acquire a mob numbering up to a hundred simply by feeding them maize every day and generally looking out for them.
I learned a lot about the behaviour of turkeys and came to discount some popular misconceptions about them. People would tell me how stupid they were in that they would drag their chicks through the long wet grass so that they died. It is true that the early broods did tend to have a poor survival rate because of wet weather but the turkeys considered the harrier hawk a greater threat to the chicks’ survival which necessitated hiding them in long grass. However, when the dry weather arrived the survival rate was very high. Indeed they exhibited real intelligence in that the hens very often banded together in pairs to fight off the harriers. I often observed them bravely flying up to attack the hated birds who spent much of the spring patrolling the area looking for nests for nothing was more delectable to them than turkey embryos.
I had not quite appreciated that turkeys do fly and there is no more magnificent sight than to see full grown turkeys fly as a mob off the hills of an evening coming into to be fed, or to see them marching across the paddocks hunting for crickets and other insects. However, I was not so impressed when they stripped my grape vine every year.
Then there was the drama of the gobblers parading during the mating season, the incredible red and purple mask teaching me what totem means. And the comedy of them stomping on the roof of a morning if I was at all late in getting up to feed them, or wandering inside to parade before a mirror. One can only fully appreciated what “a proper turkey” means from watching a turkey running, head leaning forwards and legs flying out to the side.
I grew to admire these birds and came to think, like Benjamin Franklin, that the turkey deserved to be America’s national bird rather than the bald eagle. Somehow kiwis and turkeys go better together.
But then the culling had to be done, especially as my reluctance to deal with it had the numbers grow to somewhat ridiculous proportions. Luckily I had many friends and acquaintances who had come to appreciate “wild” turkeys fed on maize.
One should be spared the gory details of the slaughter, which involved machetes and axes, blood and guts and feathers everywhere, utter bedlam.
The next morning there they would be, the survivors, waiting to be fed again, albeit a bit wary and ready to take off. Still thoroughly traumatised I would return to the kitchen and sit over a pot of tea, no doubt looking more than a little demented, pondering deep metaphysical issues and mumbling, “Why don’t they revolt? Why do they just lie down and take it? Why don’t they rise up and turn on me?”
Finally, I said enough. I stopped feeding them and let them run wild again. After a couple of years, being hunted by man and hawk, they barely managed to maintain their numbers.
Some animals do I think make a contract with us, choosing to be fed and housed and cared for rather than face the crueler hand of nature in limiting their numbers. Modern factory farmers have moved away from that contract and no doubt think such notions entirely balmy.
Narena Olliver — Waiotahi Valley, Opotiki, 1998.
Turkey from Eleazar ALBIN's The Natural History of Birds, 1735-50.
Rough farmland in the North Island and a few locations in the South Island.
Ploughing on a Sunday
The white cock’s tail
Tosses in the wind.
The turkey–cock’s tail
Glitters in the sun.
Water in the fields.
The wind pours down.
The feathers flare
And bluster in the wind.
Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday,
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!
The turkey–cock’s tail
Spreads to the sun.
The white cock’s tail
Streams to the moon.
Water in the fields.
The wind pours down.
— Wallace Stevens
O magnet–south! O glistening perfumed South! my South!
O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!
O dear to me my birth-things--all moving things and the trees where
I was born — the grains, plants, rivers,
Dear to me my own slow sluggish rivers where they flow, distant,
over flats of slivery sands or through swamps,
Dear to me the Roanoke, the Savannah, the Altamahaw, the Pedee, the
Tombigbee, the Santee, the Coosa and the Sabine,
O pensive, far away wandering, I return with my soul to haunt their banks again,
Again in Florida I float on transparent lakes, I float on the
Okeechobee, I cross the hummock–land or through pleasant openings or dense forests,
I see the parrots in the woods, I see the papaw–tree and the blossoming titi;
Again, sailing in my coaster on deck, I coast off Georgia, I coast up the Carolinas,
I see where the live–oak is growing, I see where the yellow-pine,
the scented bay–tree, the lemon and orange, the cypress, the graceful palmetto,
I pass rude sea–headlands and enter Pamlico sound through an inlet,
and dart my vision inland;
O the cotton plant! the growing fields of rice, sugar, hemp!
The cactus guarded with thorns, the laurel–tree with large white flowers,
The range afar, the richness and barrenness, the old woods charged with mistletoe and trailing moss,
The piney odor and the gloom, the awful natural stillness, (here in
these dense swamps the freebooter carries his gun, and the
fugitive has his conceal’d hut;)
O the strange fascination of these half–known half–impassable
swamps, infested by reptiles, resounding with the bellow of the
alligator, the sad noises of the night–owl and the wild–cat, and
the whirr of the rattlesnake,
The mocking–bird, the American mimic, singing all the forenoon,
singing through the moon–lit night,
The humming-bird, the wild turkey, the raccoon, the opossum;
A Kentucky corn–field, the tall, graceful, long–leav’d corn,
slender, flapping, bright green, with tassels, with beautiful
ears each well–sheath’d in its husk;
O my heart! O tender and fierce pangs, I can stand them not, I will depart;
O to be a Virginian where I grew up! O to be a Carolinian!
O longings irrepressible! O I will go back to old Tennessee and
never wander more.
— Walt Whitman
American Ornithology;..., 1825.
John James AUDUBON, Birds of America, 1840.
Eleazar ALBIN, The Natural History of Birds, 1735-50.
C.L. Bonaparte, American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of Birds Inhabiting the United States, 1825.
Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.
Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.
Friday, 8 September, 2023; ver2023v1