Every Thanksgiving, families gather around their tables, forget their differences and eat some turkey and stuffing. For me, the turkey part of all of that comes with a really different feeling.
When I was in elementary and middle school, I was introduced to an animal I never thought I would care so much about. Through the glory of 4-H, I raised my first group of turkeys.
Poultry was never my first choice when it came to raising animals. I’d always been kind of scared of birds, and I thought they were really kind of smelly. But, because we lived in the middle of Circleville, Ohio, there was definitely not enough room for any large livestock like cows or horses. My mom also ruled out any “fuzzy” animals because we would get too attached. So, we were stuck with three to choose from: turkeys, chickens or ducks.
I’m not sure why or how I came to the conclusion that I would raise turkeys, but I did. So in the cold and snow of winter, we bought our first group of turkey poults.
I would only be taking one bird to fair in the summer, but because the mortality rate of birds is so high and because it’s better to have more animals to choose from when picking which to take to fair, we ordered six animals.
For the first month or two, while it was still really cold, we kept them inside in a big storage tote under a heat lamp. This way, I could keep an eye on them and get used to having animals to take care of, as well as play with them when I felt like it.
The fuzzy little guys were awfully cute, but the downside to keeping them inside was the noise. They sometimes stayed up very late into the night and kept us up; I can still hear their chirping when I close my eyes. During this time, I learned what it was like to have a living thing be dependent on me, which is definitely a valuable lesson.
After a few months, their soft fuzz was replaced with white feathers, and their heads were starting to become bare; they were finally big enough to be outside on their own. My stepdad took up some carpentry skills during this time and built a pen for them out of plywood and chicken wire. It was big enough to be a small house, and it had its own little yard.
Every day after school I would let my turkeys out of their pen. They acted almost like dogs. They would follow me around, they stayed in our yard and would come to me when I called for them. I could even hug them and pet them when I wanted to.
Taking care of them wasn’t all fun, though. It involved a lot of waking up early, even on weekends, to feed and water them. I also had to take care of their pen. Six turkeys poop a lot, so I had to clean out their pen at least once a week. But it was all worth it.
By the end of the six-month period that I was raising them in, it was summer and we were making preparations to take one of my birds to fair. Every day when I let them out, they would puff up their feathers and do what we called “strutting.”
They let their appendage (the long thing on their nose) hang over their nose, and their feathers would stand up, making them look bigger. They walked slow and their heads would change from light pink to dark purple, bright blue, and red. They would also make a noise that sounded close to sneezing, and their wings would hang low at their sides. This act is both for mating and defense purposes. Seeing a turkey do this is a beautiful sight, and it’s probably how people imagine turkeys always looking.
The week of the fair is always the hardest on any animal. For turkeys, it’s especially hard. They get hot very easily and we always had to keep a spray bottle and fan handy to make sure they did’t overheat. This week is really hard on the breeder, too. This is when we have to start letting go of the animal we’ve been raising for six months.
On the last day of fair, after the animal is bought, it’s really time to say goodbye. It was definitely bittersweet because I knew my animal was raised to feed someone, and I had gotten quite a bit of money from selling him, but this animal had been in my life for a while, and I had started to love him like a pet.
While I never won grand champion for having the biggest animal, I won first place every year in the showmanship category, which tested my skill with handling the animal and my knowledge of the breed.
While my family sits down around the table for their Thanksgiving turkey this year, I will be thinking of the memories I made raising such a unique and important animal.