I started adopting young animals while still a child myself. Many were orphaned newborns, meaning I mothered a variety of creatures – raccoon, squirrel, fox, bobcat, whatever came my way. I felt the animals preferred my company to that of members of their own species, and many even slept in my bed. At the time, I thought I’d discovered a sort of magic; but after years of studying animal behaviour, I learned of a process known as imprinting, whereby young creatures become attached to the first moving object they encounter.
I was keen to explore this phenomenon further, but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I got the chance. In the early 90s, I was living on a large tract of land in rural Florida, working as a wildlife artist and researcher. One day, I was given a dog bowl full of wild turkey eggs by a tractor driver who had almost driven over them. I had to act fast, procuring an incubator at short notice and turning the eggs twice a day, as a turkey hen would. I would regularly “vocalise” at them, recreating the putts and purrs a wild turkey would make on its nest, in order to get the eggs accustomed to my voice. A week or so into the experiment, I started to hear peeped responses from them and the first tiny beak broke through.
The first poult to emerge responded immediately to my voice, raising his wet head to look me straight in the eyes. Then he pressed his face against mine and quickly fell asleep. Over the next few days, this process was repeated many times; though not all the chicks survived, I soon had a new family of 16 wild turkeys.
I built a large pen to protect my flock from predators, complete with upright tree limbs for them to roost; at a week and a half old, they could already fly. I spent a lot of time in the pen myself. The poults would expect Mom to be waiting when they emerged from their roosts before dawn and I had to be present at dusk until every one of my charges was asleep.
During the day we explored the surrounding countryside. I quickly became familiar with each bird’s distinctive personality: Little Friend, who always wanted to be by my side; Sweet Pea, who enjoyed nothing better than being held and stroked. They were fascinated by every new thing they encountered, but also had individual interests: Rosita was drawn to squirrels, Turkey Boy to turtles.
Wild turkeys are born with an extensive language. A wildlife biologist called Lovett Williams identified and recorded about 30 calls. I was familiar with those sounds and their meanings, and could give a lost call that other members of the family would respond to, revealing their location, or an assembly call that would bring the whole flock dashing and flapping back to me.
But while living as a turkey, I discovered their communication was far subtler than I’d realised. We encountered many snakes as we explored and I was soon able to distinguish the different inflections they made to identify various species. Over time, I got better at making those sounds myself, modulating my voice to reproduce the nuances as best I could. After six months, I no longer felt like the bad singer in the choir, though occasionally I’d miscall and get a very different reaction from the one I’d anticipated. I sometimes felt acute embarrassment at how I must appear to them. My aim was to become indistinguishable from the rest of the flock, but I felt they saw me as the village idiot.
The project lasted two years. The turkeys grew fast, but my separation from them began when they started roosting in trees outside their pen, where I could not follow. I felt relief at having kept them alive long enough to become independent, but did feel robbed of the hours I could no longer spend as part of the group. What were they saying up there? Eventually, they all struck out on their own and, though individuals would occasionally visit, I had no direct contact with the next generation of wild turkeys. I had surrendered myself completely to their world, but then I had to learn to let go.
It’s a common misconception that turkeys are stupid birds. From the moment they hatched, my wild turkey family demonstrated wonder, joie de vivre and an innate understanding of every other creature in their environment. They taught me the value of trying to live in a state of true wakefulness. They have no choice but to live in the moment.
• As told to Chris Broughton
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