Last spring, a wild turkey hen incubated her eggs for twenty-eight days. When they hatched, she scrambled to keep up with them. Poults to scientific literature. Babies to her. She didn't need to teach them to scratch for bugs—they came with that instinct. Nighttimes during their first four weeks, she sheltered them in their nest on the ground to protect them from predators and the weather.
She'd started with a dozen poults. Some were stolen by coyotes and raccoons, others died from
Each day they walked through the woods and yards searching for food. Beneath some birdfeeders, they scratched through sunflowers shells for kernels and insects. "I remember," she said, "when pickings were easy here. Alas,
"I wish I could fly now," her oldest poult said, and took off running, its still-short neck pulling it forward, its stubs of wings flapping, its thin legs running, but no lift-off.
"Wait a few days," she said.
Mornings and afternoons, she, the other two hens, and their nine poults scratched through the grasses and mosses, nipped leaves, and swallowed last year's acorns and seeds whole. When they moved from one yard to another, she was lead turkey, the poults lined up behind her, the other two hens flanking the rear. When a kid wandered off, the other hens ran after it and steered it back into line. She turned her head and
Safety. How difficult it was to teach her young to be aware of their surroundings. "Life is dangerous. I remember when…" she said and looked up to see her boy chest-thump fighting with another boy poult. She jumped between them flapping her wings. "Settle down. NOW." Hers sat on the ground near her and kept trying to stand up until she set her wing over his back. He curred and whirred till his time-out was completed.
There was much to teach the poults. Next would be their first flying lesson to atop a six-foot high chain-link fence and down the other side into an even greener yard. She waited on the ground while another hen flew atop a fencepost.
"We've been practicing this," she said. "Take a running start, flap your wings, and continue beating them as hard as you can, and they'll lift you." One by one, all nine kids flew upward to stumble and catch their balance on the top of the fence.
"Now hop down, and run, run, run," another hen said. "If you don't run, you'll fall over on your beaks." None of the poults could have heard her for they had fluttered down, run across the driveway, and were scratching in a thick green lawn.
The wild turkey hen followed, flying over the fence and running to catch up with the rest. "Remember," she said, "guard duty. Always, always, always wherever you stop to eat, no matter how safe it feels, you must take turns standing guard." She'd taught them from nearly their first day after hatching to take their turns but they forgot so easily. "Stand guard," she squawked. Two of her poults stood stiffly at the outer edge of the flock. She hadn't noticed before how much they'd grown. Instead of the fluffy gray chicks that had first hatched, they looked like real wild turkeys, dark feathers and long necks and legs. "Time for someone else to guard." Her poults relaxed and resumed eating while another two took their turns.
By early fall, their small flock had been reduced to nine. A red fox had snatched one of hers. Another hen had left to rejoin the larger flock after her only poult became ill and died. Her own poults had grown into juveniles. She'd taught them what she'd learned from her mother. It was time for them to join her original flock, where daytimes more turkeys could stand guard and nighttimes they'd roost closer together in the pines for warmth, which would give them a better chance of surviving the long winter.
Brigitte lives in Maine and often uses settings and experiences from her backyard in her writing. She earned Fiction Writing Certificates from Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA-Ext and is working on her WVU-MFA Certificate. In addition to facilitating WVU classes, she meets weekly with two local writers' groups.