Sunday, July 27, 2008
HEY! Let me tell you about my turkeys! Ummmmmm... well, they're turkeys. They fly, and make noise, and poop. They poop a LOT. This particular bunch of birds are about 8 weeks old, and they've been living in our basement for that entire time. IT'S GOOD TO HAVE THEM OUTSIDE NOW. The baby chickens, we've kicked outside a LOT sooner, but we were a bit nervous about the turkey poults, having been advised by several people that baby turkeys spend the first several weeks of their lives "sitting around thinking up ways to die," and we did, indeed, lose two of the poults in the first days of their lives. I've been told that their immune systems take much longer to develop than those of chickens. I can tell you from first-hand experience that they're about 10 times less intelligent than chickens, and that's not exactly a high bar.
OK, there's more to them than that. These turkeys are not your average Butterball. The Butterballs and other commercially-available turkeys consumed in North America--99% of them, anyway, are Broad-Breasted White turkeys--the Frankenturkeys of the poultry world. Bred for massive breasts and rapid weight-gain, the BBWs can't reproduce naturally, and have a short life-span (longer than Frankenchickens, who can only survive a matter of weeks or occasionally months if not butchered before their organs give out, but short compared to "normal" turkeys). Their systems just can't support such massive growth for very long. That doesn't usually become an issue, since the BBWs are butchered at such a very young age.
Just like with the chickens, when I decided I wanted turkeys, I wanted something more natural than the standard "meat bird." Something that can easily move around, can fly, has strong foraging instincts, and can reproduce without human assistance. There are only a handful of turkey breeds who fit that bill, called heritage breeds, and Narragansetts are considered, by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, to be a "threatened" breed of heritage turkey. So by choosing to raise these turkeys, we're helping to keep them around for the future, and increasing the diversity of our nation's food supply, hopefully.
Of the heritage breeds, as I did with my chickens, I chose the one that was known for a calm personality and a "broody" nature in the hens--the Narragansett. Broodiness just means that at certain points in her life, a hen will have a strong desire to sit on a clutch of eggs, hatch them, and tend to the babies. This requires a good amount of devotion and commitment, and not all hens have it. The ones who do will be the ones we continue on with for next year's turkey crop, and by choosing Narragansetts, I've hopefully increased our odds for getting a good number of broodies. Ditto the toms--our "keeper" tom needs to not only have all the physical characteristics of a proper Narragansett turkey, but he needs to be protective of, and kind to, the hens in his care, and he also needs to not behave aggressively toward humans. Again, whoever fits the bill is who will still be around this time next year.
They're hugely entertaining to watch--not as much so as the chickens, to me, at least not yet, but still fun. They went outside for the first time today, so I'm crossing my fingers that they'll do well. Alex has built them a huge flight pen so that they have plenty of room to run and scratch and play and fly, and one day soon, when they're a bit older, they'll be allowed out with the chickens to have the run of the place during the day.
I'm asked a lot, as I asked myself at the beginning of this venture, how I can stand the thought of raising an animal from a baby and then harvesting it for food. The truth is, I'm still not 100% sure that I can, but at this point, I'm 95% sure I'll be able to do it. The key, for me, is in thinking of them as food from Day One. If I'm going to eat chicken and turkey (and I am), then the least I can do is to remove myself as much as possible from the factory-farmed poultry industry and its cruel system. I may be sad when harvest day comes--I SHOULD be sad, I think--but I can ensure that, unlike their unlucky battery-raised counterparts, my birds have a good life and an easy death.
I will know that the poultry in my care, for their entire lives, knew grass under their feet and sunshine on their faces. That they always had plenty of space, and plenty of both quality food and clean water. That they were able to forage to their hearts' content, and when the urge hit them, to stretch their wings and roost in the trees.
Do these guys have a face only a mother could love, or what? Sadly, coming from a hatchery, they never knew a mother, aside from Alex and myself (they actually set up quite a fuss when we left them outside tonight, calling to us as we walked away toward the house). Hopefully, next year we'll have a whole new crop of turkey poults who arrive the way nature intended, complete with real, live MOMMIES of the same species. That's the way it should be.
If all goes well with the Narragansetts over the next year, then I might like to consider adding a heritage breed that has a local history--there is a breed called the "Arkansas Red," or "Regal Red," but I was unable to find anyone who has them. If you do, or you know someone who does, let me know.