Let’s Talk Turkey: Raising a Wild Turkey Poult

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This most sweetest thing entered our lives by surprise, and just as quickly left it.

The other evening, our neighbor, Sandy, showed up with a wild turkey chick. She told us that her dog had turned up with it in his mouth, and since she knew we loved wildlife, figured we’d know what to do with it.

I did: Return it to its mother. No matter how impassioned the please-mom-can-we-keep-its.

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Sandy told us approximately where her dog had been causing mischief, so I planned to take the poult back there to find the nest. But in the mean time, it was 9 pm, and we had to figure out what to do with it until morning. We didn’t have a warming lamp, or even any light that could produce heat, since all our light sources are cool LEDs. And even if we could get one, we don’t have electricity to keep it going all night, without running the generator.

So I cobbled together the warmest situation I could, that was also safe from a cat or mouse invasion. A combination of boiling water in jars wrapped in towels, together with a nest made of a fat ball of wool yarn in a cardboard box wrapped in my down jacket and a wool blanket would have to do.

In spite of that, when I got up before dawn to check on the chick, it was sprawled out cold and could barely lift its head. The fastest way I knew to warm him up was what I did with my own newborn babies–give skin-to-skin contact. Or rather, skin-to-down contact. I stuck it inside my shirt and held it against my skin. The kids soon got up and took turns cupping it inside their shirts.

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I warned them that it would likely die, but to my surprise, within an hour, that thing was lively as ever, pecking around in our garden box.

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Of course, I had already spent hours researching wild turkey poult care, so I knew that it was born with an instinctive ability to feed itself. And that’s exactly what it did. It just walked around pecking at the ground and snapping up pretty much any insect in its vicinity. We put it in our compost bin, which held a smorgasboard of turkey breakfast, and that thing went to town.

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After breakfast–both turkey and human–we went down to the creek to see if we could find the mother and the nest. The spot Sandy had told us was back behind a thicket, but our bushwacking through poison oak turned up nothing. I’m sure we could have been looking right at a nest and not seen it. We thought we heard some peeping, so we waited about half an hour to see if the mom turned up, but finally decided that we had a turkey poult on our hands. The kids whooped for joy. I kinda did too.

We took the kids and the poult to the feed store to see what we would need. There were domestic turkey poults there that were a week old, and way bigger than ours. The feed store guy told us that ours was only two or three days old. He said it needed water right away, so we plopped it right in there with the other babies, and it followed their lead by drinking from the waterer. The guy sympathized with us and gave us an envelope of free turkey starter feed (though the poult never even touched it) and some bedding, so that we wouldn’t have to buy the 50 pound bag. So nice. We bought a waterer. Then we went to the pharmacy, where I broke my no-garbage, buy-used policy and bought a hot water bottle and some disposable 8-hour back pain heat packs, figuring that would keep our baby warm over night.

We spent the next two days finding the juiciest worms in the compost bin and mothering our new baby. The kids seriously rose to the occasion and took turns watching it, as I researched everything from imprinting to building a coop. Giovanni’s critter catching skills came in especially handy, as he snatched up lightning-fast crickets to feed it (he cried for the cricket the first time he fed it to the poult). Cece was so gentle with it. And Stella assumed the role of turkey mommy, with her usually uncombed, curly birds-nest hair becoming a veritable birds’ nest.

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We all got pooped on, but none of us really cared. Well, except Cece, who was pretty grossed out when it got her pretty dress dirty. By the end of day two, the poult was doing fine and had nested its way into our hearts.

Then, off in the distance appeared the Ladies’ Garden Club, our affectionate name for the posse of female turkeys that hangs around here. Stella was out with the poult as it foraged, and those turkeys seemed to know it.

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At this time, I should mention the film My Life as a Turkey. If you like nature and haven’t seen it yet, you really should, and if it doesn’t end up on your favorite list, I’ll be surprised. We had fallen in love with it a while back, and then watched it again after finding our poult. From the film, we learned that poults and hens know each others’ voices. Amazing.

One of the hens seemed to be especially interested, and I wondered if  it was the mother. Stella had the same thought. At first, it seemed unlikely, since she didn’t have other babies with her, and we were at least half a mile from where the poult had been nabbed.

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But as we watched, we became convinced that this was the mom. And I became convinced that we had to get it back to her. But first, we had to be sure. We didn’t want our baby being released into the wild with turkey vultures hovering over, without knowing that this hen would take care of it.

We set up a milk crate and put the poult in it, then backed away to see if the hen would recognize it as her own. As the other five hens went on their merry way, this one definitely was calling to our poult as it got closer, and our poult desperately called back to it. Tell me I’m wrong:

So then, with Stella bawling her eyes out, we let the poult out of the crate and stood back to watch it get to its mom. We were really worried with it out in the open and hawks and snakes around. We couldn’t find the right distance to make sure it was okay, but also allow the hen to get closer. To my dismay, we watched as the poult desperately tried getting to its mom, and the hen gradually walking away in the direction of the other hens, out of reach.

We gathered up our poult and went back home for the evening. I knew the Ladies’ Garden Club would be back, as they were every day, so I figured we’d try again the next day.

We put our poult to bed that night, all a little sad for it, but glad to have it back safely. The next morning, I swear that poult was not the same. It lacked energy. It ate, but not as energetically. And by the end of the day, it could barely lift its head. The Ladies’ Garden Club didn’t come back that day. It was clear that this poult was not going to make it through the night.

We all held it and loved on it before putting it in its warming box. Stella got up in the middle of the night to check on it, and it was dead.

Now, my online research tells me that it has to stay at 95 degrees for the first week, and even if the poult perks up, can die of shock several days after being exposed to cold. I’m sure our nighttime box didn’t get warm enough, especially the first night, though the second two nights, our poult seemed to be nice and warm and perky sitting on the back pain pads surrounded by the hot water bottle.

So it may be that our poult died from exposure to cold.

But you will never convince me that that little thing didn’t die of a broken heart.

We all nearly did.