Pictured: A chorus of sniffy snorters, milling about
The end of Turkana Farms’ annual turkey season is fast approaching. Though they usually graze not far from the house, just up near the barn, , we can’t always see them, screened from view as they are by lines of vegetation. Nevertheless, we are always aware of their presence because of their unmistakable and frequent vocalization. When they go to market, their absence is therefore strongly felt. The farm seems to go eerily quiet.
Their repertory of sounds not only lets us know they are with us, it also lets us know more or less what they’re up to. Every once in a while Peter will call out to me “Mark, the turkeys are making those sounds they make when they’re where they shouldn’t be.” And out I head to the vegetable garden, tomato patch, the wooded area at the back of the rock garden, or Peter’s perennial garden to start the round up, herding them to the compounds where we’d prefer that they graze. It always amazes us that each year new and different turkeys, completely incubator and brooder raised, and thus with no older turkeys to teach them, seem to speak the same language and make the same sounds in the same circumstances. After almost fifteen years of raising them, we have developed the sense that we can understand some of that language. Indeed, with every new flock Peter engages in a call and response, in which he emits a high pitched call of “beeauuuutiful” and they respond in a simultaneous, heartfelt chorus of gobbles, creating a conversation and a sort of personal bond.
Imagine my excitement when I discovered several weeks ago that a colleague from my legal work is married to a “turkey whisperer,” that is, someone who is an expert at communicating with turkeys. In fact, he has in the past been sought after by hunters to help “call in” elusive wild Osceola turkeys in Florida. I insisted that she bring him over for a visit before our turkeys go to market, in the hopes of having an interpreter of the turkey vocabulary we have been trying to puzzle out over the years.
And so Mark and Tracy Baldwin came for a visit a couple of weeks ago. We spent a good 45 minutes standing among the turkeys, Mark occasionally letting out a throaty “yelp” that called forth a responsive yelp from whatever bird we were standing in front of, all the while fending off what may have seemed like a lot of dumb questions from us about “meaning.” Often, I would ask something like “what does that sound mean?” and Mark would respond with something like “Oh, that’s just socialization,” which conveyed to me that he had an intuitive understanding of their use of the sounds and that I was, in my usual anthropomorphizing way, trying to superimpose some sort of precise human-style vocabulary that might not be appropriate.
Yes, he did describe some very specialized calls, such as the “kee-kee” of a hen and her poults looking for each other, and the single chirp that causes the entire flock to suddenly go silent when danger (in the form, for example, of a huge raptor floating above) approaches. But the rest of the wide turkey sound repertory, including not only “kee-kees” but also what Mark referred to as “yelps”, “purrs”, “clucks” and aggressive “cutting” calls, as well as the sniffy snorts I observe as they mill around, seems a bit more amorphous, part of a dynamic of building a flock social hierarchy that may not be tied to specific “words” so much as frequency, volume and style of delivery of sounds. They may start with slow yelps, but then pick up the frequency and speed of the repeated sounds into a sort of song as they get excited or worked up.
Mark grew up in Coxsackie, and now lives in Schoharie. He grew up hunting game such as rabbits and deer, but never hunted turkeys until his teenage years in the 1970s, when efforts of the National Wild Turkey Federation to repopulate the continental United States with these magnificent birds had paid off with a sufficient population in New York to permit hunting. He bought his first turkey call at a hunting show. Though there are traditional calls made from turkey bones, the ones Mark described buying include small wooden boxes with paddles and devices with elastic stretch bands to simulate diaphragm calls. Unfortunately, Mark didn’t bring any of these with him on his visit, so we only got to witness a limited range of “conversations” he could engage in by mouth alone. But he was able to point out to us the various ways the turkeys were interacting, the jakes (adolescent males) communicating with each other, and frequently, as they mature, fighting to establish a hierarchy of dominance, and the hens off as a group similarly but more quietly establishing a pecking order within their ranks.
After a bit of call and response with several hens, Mark picked up on something Peter and I had never noticed. Our Bourbon Reds yelp in a different tone, higher in timbre and further back in the throat, than the other breeds we raise. I had always been told that the only real difference between our various breeds was their skin and feather color, which seemed mostly accurate to me although the Bourbon Reds also seem to run a bit smaller than the Holland Whites, Black Spanish and Naragansetts we raise. But it seems like there is another genetically based difference in the vocal quality of the birds as well. This did not surprise Mark, who said that there are distinctions in voice among the four major breeds of North American wild turkey – the Rio Grande, Osceola, Merriam and Eastern wild turkeys – and that some South American wild turkeys actually whistle rather than vocalize in the songs we are used to hearing.
As we have noted in our own flock, one universal pattern of turkey behavior involves males who prance and display in an effort establish dominance and to attract females. In the wild, Mark says, a tom turkey will fly down out of a tree and establish a “strutting zone,” where he will dance and vocalize to attract his brood of hens around him. Hunters invert that process in their effort to . shoot a large, bearded tom (the “beard” being a sort of pony tail of hair emerging from the center of the turkey’s chest, which appears at the age of about 6 months). The hunter tries to attract a tom by emulating the sounds of a hen, trying to get the tom excited so that it will approach the area where the hunters await. It may require different devices and sequences of sound to elicit the response, much of this by trial and error.
Mark pointed out how much our farm environment differs from the order of the wild. He said that wild turkeys have tremendous resources at their disposal to protect themselves – vision with six times our acuity, and a very strong flocking instinct that pools their observational resources and leads them to follow a lead hen’s instructions. Despite these protective instincts, in the wild they lead lives of tremendous stress, always in jeopardy from a variety of predators and never fully able to “relax.”
Our birds, in contrast, live a relatively stress-free existence. They have plentiful food and fresh water at all times, are herded to a safe sleeping porch each night, and are largely fenced off from predators. They have developed a sense that humans do not present a danger to them. And as to those gurgly sounds I asked Mark about when they seem to be enjoying an outing in the vegetable garden, the ones Peter takes as a signal that they’re somewhere we don’t want them to be? Those are indeed sounds of relaxation and pleasure, sounds you won’t hear with nearly the same frequency in the wild.
The contentment the turkeys convey to me in their gurgles is infectious. The social joy of their excited yelping jamborees is similarly so. I miss their songs when they’re gone. I suspect the entire neighborhood does. The contradictory emotions we experience at sending these birds to their fate for your and our eating pleasure are brought for us into some balance realizing as we do that they have so enjoyed their high quality life.