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The Turkey

( Originally Published 1918 )



"OF all our barnyard fowls, the turkey is the most remarkable except the peacock, which is raised only for the incomparable richness of its plumage. The turkey-gobbler has his head and neck covered with bare bluish skin, embellished behind with white nipples and in front with red ones, which swell and hang down in large pendants, resembling sealing wax in color. Over his beak falls a piece of flesh, short and wrinkled when the bird is in repose, hanging far down and of brilliant coloring when he wishes to display his charms. In the middle of his breast is fastened an unkempt sort of mane. To show off, he bridles up, inflates his red pendants, elongates the piece of flesh over his beak, throws his head back, spreads out his tail feathers in the shape of a wheel, and lets the tips of his half-opened wings trail on the ground. In this grotesquely proud posture he turns slowly to let himself be admired from all sides. From time to time a low sound, puff-puff, accompanied by a sort of convulsive stretching of the wings, is the sign of his supreme satisfaction. If some noise, especially whistling, disturbs him, he hauls down his colors and, stretching his neck, hastily gives a gloo-gloo-gloo that seems to burst from the very depths of his stomach."

"By whistling to the turkeys feeding in the fields," said Emile, "I can make them repeat their cry as often as I want to. The turkey hens do not say gloogloo; they peep plaintively."

"This fowl is a recent acquisition of our poultry-yards," resumed Uncle Paul. "It came to us from North America in the sixteenth century. As America was called West Indies in contrast with the Asian or East Indies, the bird originating in the forests of the New World was called the Indian cock (coq d'Inde) and the Indian hen (poule d'Inde); from which have come the French terms dindon and dinde. For a long time the bird spread but little ; it was raised merely as a curious rarity. The first that appeared on the table was, they say, at the wedding feast of Charles IX.

"The turkey lived, and still lives today, in a wild state, in the forests of the United States of North America. Its habits are described by a celebrated naturalist, Audubon, who, with his gun on his shoulder, his notebook, pencil, and brushes in his game-bag, traversed the most secluded solitudes in order to observe, paint, and describe birds.

" `The nest,' he tells us, 'which consists of a few withered leaves, is placed on the ground, in a hollow scooped out by the side of a log, or in the fallen top of a dry leafy tree, under a thicket of sumach or briars, or a few feet within the edge of a cane-brake, but always in a dry place. . . . When depositing her eggs, the female always approaches the nest with extreme caution, scarcely ever taking the same course twice, and when about to leave them covers them carefully with leaves, so that it is very difficult for a person who may have seen the bird to discover the nest... .

" 'The mother will not leave her eggs when near hatching, under any circumstances, while life remains. She will even allow an enclosure to be made around her, and thus suffer imprisonment, rather than abandon them. I once witnessed the hatching of a brood of turkeys, which I watched for the purpose of securing them together with the parent. I concealed myself on the ground within a very few feet, and saw her raise herself half the length of her legs, look anxiously upon the eggs, cluck with a sound peculiar to the mother on such occasions, carefully remove each half-empty shell, and with her bill caress and dry the young birds, that already stood tottering and attempting to make their way out of the nest.

Yes, I have seen this, and have left mother and young to better care than mine could have proved—to the care of their Creator and mine. I have seen' them all emerge from the shell, and, in a few moments after, tumble, roll, and push each other forward, with astonishing and inscrutable instinct.' "

"That 's the kind of hunter I like," declared Jules; "one who knows how to restrain himself at the touching sight of a nest of young birds. What did you say his name was?"

"Audubon."

"I sha'n't forget that name again."

"And that will be right, for few observers have discoursed on birds with so much sympathetic understanding as he.

I continue to draw from his account. `About the beginning of October,' says he, 'when scarcely any of the seeds and fruits have yet fallen from the trees, these birds assemble in flocks, and gradually move towards the rich bottom lands of the Ohio and Mississippi. . . . When they come upon a river, they betake themselves to the highest eminences, and there often remain a whole day, or sometimes two, as if for the purpose of consultation. During this time, the males are heard gobbling, calling, and making much ado, and are seen strutting about, as if to raise their courage to a pitch befitting the emergency. Even the females and young assume something of the same pompous demeanor, spread out their tails, and run round each, other, purring loudly, and performing extravagant leaps. At length, when the weather appears settled, and all around is- quiet, the whole party mounts to the tops of the highest trees, whence, at a signal, consisting of a single chuck, given by a leader, the flock takes flight for the opposite shore. The old and fat birds easily get over, even should the river be a mile in breadth; but the younger and less robust frequently fall into the water—not to be drowned, however, as might be imagined. They bring their wings close to their body, spread out their tail as a support, stretch forward their neck, and striking out their legs with great vigor, proceed rap-idly toward the shore; on approaching which, should they find it too steep for landing, they cease their exertions for a few moments, float down the stream until they come to an accessible part, and by a violent effort extricate themselves from the water. It is remarkable that, immediately after thus crossing a large stream, they ramble about for some time, as if bewildered. In this state, they fall an easy prey to the hunter.

" `Of the numerous enemies of the wild turkey, the most formidable, excepting man, are the lynx, the snowy owl, and the Virginia owl.... As turkeys usually roost in flocks, on naked branches of trees, they are easily discovered by their enemies, the owls, which, on silent wing, approach and hover around them for the purpose of reconnoitering. This, however, is rarely done without being discovered, and a single cluck from one of the turkeys announces to the whole party the approach of the murderer. They instantly start upon their legs, and watch the motions of the owl, which, selecting one as its victim, comes down upon it like an arrow, and would inevitably secure the turkey, did not the latter at that moment lower its head, stoop, and spread its tail in an inverted manner over its back, by which action the aggressor is met by a smooth inclined plane, along which it glances without hurting the turkey; immediately after which the latter drops to the ground, and thus escapes, merely with the loss of a few feathers.' "

"To make a breastplate of the tail spread out like a wheel is a very ingenious means of defense," re-marked Emile. "The turkey is not so foolish as people think."

It is so far from being foolish that we have not in the poultry-yard a more impassioned lover of liberty. In their native country turkeys wander through the great woods from morning to night in untiring search of insects and fat larva, fruit and seeds of all kinds, acorns and nuts especially, of which they are very fond. Thus the stay-at-home habits of the poultry-yard do not suit them at all. They must have the open air of the fields and the exercise of long walks. Moors, woods, hills abounding in grasshoppers, are their favorite haunts. Their timid nature makes them very docile. A child armed with a long switch is enough to lead the flock to the fields, however numerous it may be. Then, step by step, to-day in one direction, tomorrow in another, the flock explores the stubble and gleans the grain fallen from the ear, traverses the grassy meadows where the crickets leap, and penetrates the woods where is found abundant pasturage of chestnuts, beechnuts, and acorns.

"In spite of these rambles afield, which remind it a little of the wandering life it leads in the immense forests of its native country, the turkey never ac-quires in domesticity the plumpness of body and richness of plumage that belong to it in its free state. It is a curious fact that, contrary to all our experience with other animals, which have improved under human care and have increased in size, the turkey alone has degenerated in our hands, as if preyed upon by an ineradicable regret for its native forests, where bellows the buffalo, chased by the red-skinned Indian. The domestic turkey is not much more than half as large as the wild one. And then what a difference in the plumage ! Our poultry-yard fowl is of a uniform black or of a dull red, sometimes white. The bird of the wooded solitudes of the New World is splendid in costume. Bronzed brown predominates, but the neck, throat, and back have, in the light, metallic reflections ; and as the plumage is clearly imbricated, the whole gives the appearance of scale armor in gold and steel. Furthermore, the large wing-feathers have a pure white spot on the tip."

"From that description," said Jules, "I see well enough that the bird has not gained by living with us."

"Nor has its flesh gained in nutritive quality, that of the wild turkey being considered incomparably superior."

"It is just the opposite with the common hen," observed Louis. "Originally as small as the partridge and with as little flesh, it has developed into the fat poulard."

"Such as it is," said Uncle Paul, "the domestic turkey is none the less, next to the common fowl, the most valuable acquisition of the poultry-yard. Let us now turn our attention to it.

"The laying of its eggs takes place in April, when about twenty to a nest are laid, of a dull white with reddish spots. These eggs are scarcely ever used as food; not that they are bad—far from it—but they are too precious and too few to be converted into omelets. As fast as the turkey-hen lays them they are gathered and kept in a basket lined with hay or old rags until the time for setting. The gathering of these eggs is not always easy. Faithful to her wild habits, the turkey-hen does not willingly accept the poultry-house nest. She steals away to lay her eggs in neighboring straw-ricks, underbrush, and hedges. One must watch her proceedings therefore, foil her ruses, and from time to time visit her favorite haunts.

"Incubation presents no difficulties, the female turkey being so good a brooder. Like the common hen, she devotes herself to her eggs with passionate love; like the hen, too, while setting she forgets her food, so that she must be taken off the nest every day and made to eat and drink, as otherwise she might let herself die of hunger. The little ones hatch at the end of thirty days. There is nothing more delicate than these new-born chicks; the least cold chills them, a shower of rain is fatal to them, even the dew imperils their lives, and a hot sun kills them in a trice. If there is delay in feeding, and the mother, of ponderous bulk, awkwardly plants her feet in the midst of her numerous offspring, then the greedy little things are liable to be trampled on and crushed to death. Another danger awaits them at the age of two or three months. Young turkeys hatch with the heads covered with down, with no sign of the red nipples that will ornament them later. Within two or three months these nipples, real collars, and pendants of coral begin to show; they say then that the red is starting. At this time there takes place in the bird a painful change which to many is mortal, especially in a damp season. To succor the sick ones, they are made to swallow a few mouthfuls of warm wine. All things considered, there are numberless chances of death for the turkey-hen's brood. Add to that the small number of eggs laid, and we can understand why, in spite of its great utility, the turkey is less common than the ordinary fowl.

"Audubon has told us that when, from his concealment in the bushes, he witnessed the mother turkey's anxious procedure, the young ones left the nest almost as soon as the shell was broken. For a moment the mother warms and dries them under her breast; then, trotting and tumbling, they abandon the bed of leaves, never to return. In domesticity it is much the same ; no sooner are they hatched than the little turkeys leave the nest and thenceforth have no other shelter than the cover of their mother, who protects them under her wings exactly as the hen protects her brood. She also takes the same care of her family, exercises the same vigilance in foreseeing danger, shows the same audacity in coping with the bird of prey. For the first few days the refuge afforded by the wide and deep coop, so useful to the little chickens, is not less useful to the young turkeys. The hen-turkey is put there with choice provisions, and the little ones are free to come and go as they please. These provisions consist of a pap similar to that given to young chickens and composed of bread-crumbs, curds, chopped salad leaves and nettles, a little bran, and hard-boiled eggs. Later comes grain, oats in particular. When the weather is fine the coop is put out of doors in a sunny spot, on very dry ground, and the brood is allowed to play about for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Great care must be taken to avoid rain, dew, and dampness; a wet turkey chick is in grave danger.

"The more delicate the bird at the beginning, the More robust it is when it has successfully passed the period called the red. It no longer needs the shelter of the poultry-house at night. However cold it may be, it sleeps in the open air, roosting on the branches of some dead tree or on a perch fixed to the wall. Vainly does the north wind whistle and the frost nip; the turkey rests peacefully in the manner of its fellows in the woods of America, and without fear lest a snow-owl come to disturb its slumbers and compel it to spread its tail quickly and make a breastplate against the marauder's talons.

"I will finish this story with a few words on a curious method of fattening used in certain countries, especially in Provence, Morvan, and Flanders. Over and above the usual food that fattening birds eat voluntarily, they force both the gobbler and the hen to swallow whole nuts."

"Whole, but without the shell?" queried Emile. "No, my friend; with the shell too; in fact, nuts just as the tree bears them."

"A nut with the shell, no matter how small, must make a hard mouthful to swallow, and still harder to digest."

"I don't deny it; but finally, with the finger pushing the nut a little into the throat, and the hand gently pressing from the base of the beak to the crop, the voluminous mouthful ends by going down, not without some grimaces on the part of the bird."

"And reason enough for them ! " exclaimed Emile.

"One nut would be nothing; but that is not all. The next day they force it to swallow two, the next three, and so on, augmenting the dose each day. In Provence they stop at forty nuts a day; elsewhere they go on to a hundred."

"And the turkey does not die, stuffed thus with nuts as large and hard as stones?" asked Jules.

"You would be pleased to see how the bird prospers and fattens on food that would choke any other creature,"

"With a hundred nuts in its crop, or even only forty," was Louis's comment, "the turkey can't be very comfortable."

"They are not swallowed all at one time, but in portions during the day."

"No matter," persisted Jules ; "if you hadn't al-ready told us, according to that learned Italian—Wait a minute; what was his name?"

"The abbot Spallanzani."

"Yes, the abbot Spallanzani. If you had hadn't told us about his experiments and the wonderful power of the gizzard, I should never be able to understand how a turkey could manage to digest nuts, shell and all, up to forty and even a hundred a day."

"Everything is reduced to a sort of soup in the gizzard—shells and kernels; all becomes as soft as butter; and the bird, fat as a pig, finally serves as the chief dish at the Christmas feast."



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