Below is a poem for children by John Agard
What Turkey Doing?
in de old man shoe
cockroach dance thru
a crack in de floor
a web of tricks
monkey playing with
pencil and slate
what turkey doing
in chicken pen?
Reginald - February 2014©
© Kathleen Knight
Reginald sits peacefully in his coop as he has done for most of his life. The small wooden shed from the Amish is comfortable in the cold windy weather; the floor is layered with fresh soft hay and the heat lamp takes the temperature up a few degrees in the 5 degree nights. He has spent all his days in our sanctuary, exploring his pasture: digging for bugs, talking to the two hen turkeys who are his flock. A lovely companionable little group chatting to each other all day and going easily into the coop at night. Now he is dying but seemingly peacefully; he has been my good friend and I am sad.
Reg is a five year old bronze turkey who came from a nearby farm as a very young bird to companion the already resident 6 month old Lurky, a bronze hen turkey hatched out at the local farm store. Sarah, also a bronze hen, came with Reg; they were about two months old when they came. The sanctuary they came to houses pigeons, chickens, doves, a few pheasants, geese and with these arrivals, turkeys.
When Lurky first came she lived with the chickens, as we thought she would like that. However, she didn’t bond with the chickens at all and started exploring the forest on her own. That was not a safe choice: she had no wild animal skills and could easily have been killed. Daily Mike would have to round her up and bring her back. Mike is the young man with a lot of bird knowledge gathered breeding racing pigeons and chickens while he was growing up. He feeds and takes care of the birds daily and lives in an apartment in the big red barn. It soon became obvious that other arrangements had to be made or Lurky would not survive.
Next she went to live with our four geese in their pasture by the pond. That field is fenced to keep its inhabitants from wandering into the dirt road or the surrounding forest. This pasture is just across the road from the old farm house which is the core of the sanctuary, and easily observed from the big front porch.
After Lurky joined the geese I was fascinated by all of them and went each day to just be with them. To me they seemed very different from the chickens and pigeons I already knew. One morning the young goose climbed excitedly up in my lap and when she eventually got down, Lurky, after peering fixedly for a short intense time, jumped up, gazed trustingly at me, and settled for what felt like a long cozy time.
I was lost in wonder and delight that this vulnerable little creature would take such a risk. She was so small and completely undefended, just exploring. It turned into a daily ritual ; I treasured our times together.
The turkeys seem quite akin to the dinosaurs I have seen in museums: the large feet, the long neck, the pointed beak and the clear penetrating gaze. They seem ancient and much less flighty than the other birds I know well - chickens, pigeons, doves and of course the wild birds. In our times together Lurky was very focused and very still, at times looking out at the surroundings and others just staring up at me. I found it captivating and took it as an invitation to relationship.
Over her life Lurky and I retained that early bond; she ran to the fence when she saw me. When she got sick and came to the porch ( which doubles as our hospital ward) she was peaceful: no thrashing, no screaming and in general no complaining, though she did call to her flock in the pasture across the road. She seemed to know we intended to help. She did not take to Mike in the same way she did to me. But, he did not take to her in the way I had. She was my friend and I was her friend and we agreed about it.
As her life continued she developed a cancerous tumor under a wing. Dr. Elaine Tucker, our excellent vet, presented treatment options of various intensity, and I chose the least invasive possible so that she could enjoy her remaining time. Dr. Tucker agreed. It seems most farm bred turkeys have 3-5 year life spans (unless they become dinner, the usual outcome) . Lurk was already five; it seemed silly to cause fear and suffering for her. The treatment would require her to leave home, she would be with strangers, it would not extend her life and it would destroy her sense of security in her flock. A flock is a critical element in bird life; it parallels the human notion of community and the birds require it to flourish.
Reginald and Lurky were inseparable. They were always near each other in the pasture, sharing the days. The third turkey flock member, Sarah, was included but not with the same connection. All three turkeys spent their days grazing in their pasture, now divided from the field of the geese. The geese had pulled out some of Lurky’s feathers when she was young as they wanted them for a nest. I was heartbroken for Lurk. Her adopted goose family had treated her like an object, and for her safety we had to separate her. The rest of her life she waited everyday for the geese to come to the fence they shared so that she could be with them: just like humans who will return doggedly to a rejecting family in the hope or perhaps belief that it will be as it once seemed.
Happily, her friendship with Reg was much more satisfying. She was devoted to him and he to her; in every sense of the word they shared life. They stayed close to each other all day.
Sarah never really was part of their club: while not an outcast she was not very important in their daily relationship. In recent days she had taken to sitting behind the coop and near the fence, simply underlining her separation from the other two; the other two did not seem to mind. One day a fox dug under the fence near her and her life ended. Her death was of course a loss and a change in life in the pasture, but the bond between the other two continued as always: they still had each other.
Over the summer it became more and more obvious that Lurky’s health was failing: she had a vacant look even though she still came to the fence for treats and a visit. Day by day she slowed and one afternoon just died quietly by the fence with him nearby. I checked on her at about noon and she was quiet but living: breathing easily and seemingly without distress. Two hours later she was gone. Reg slowly walked up and down, first close to her then farther away, then close again. He nudged her; she did not move.
We left her in the field with Reg for a few hours; then Mike took her body to the porch in a plastic bag while we decided where to put her grave. As soon as she was gone Reginald started frantically hunting: first the fence line, then the coop, then the fence line again, then just standing near the coop crying loudly. The sound came from somewhere very deep and sounded like a wailing cry, something I had not heard before and was deeply touched by. We were both grieving our friend. I went to the field to be with him but there was no way out of it: our good companion was gone. He was wild with grief.
He is a large bird and he shrieked and paced over the field searching for her. In her last days he was always nearby, constantly going to her, standing beside her and looking out over the pasture. Now she was just gone.
After her death I sat with Reg for long times on the bench by the picnic table in his field. He would come , look at me and just cry out. He was so obviously distraught I thought he might die. He would sometimes allow me to give him a pat or a head scratch, but he soon went back to his frantic cries.
Five months later, Reg sits on his hay in his home and is at peace. He is not part of this life any more: he looks at the field and at the three new little hen turkeys, but he is not involved with them. They don’t know him well and he is not interested in them. The signs of terrible distress are now nowhere to be seen. When I arrive he looks up and seems pleased by the visit. He ruffles his feathers as I pat him and looks around, turning his long neck and peering up with steady eyes. And then settles again into his hay.
I bring him watermelon, since I discovered some long time back how much turkeys like it. We share a nice time while he pecks vigorously at the ripe pink melon. I fend off the other turkeys who always want what someone else has even though they have their own supply. The new hens are quite pushy; they try to snatch his watermelon. He is now too slow to defend it. I speak crossly to them, as they are violating his peace at what feels like such a sacred time. They are newcomers; they did not experience Reginald as leader of the flock. They want the watermelon.
He is very evidently done with this life and shows no outward signs of regret or struggle. It is a peaceful and moving departure process and I am so honored to be his close friend. And student.
Death is so enormous, so far beyond language. This big turkey slowly became discernibly more peaceful as his body weakened. In a strange powerful way we became closer as friends over this time. I do not question his death: his timing seems impeccable. Surely I miss him. The hole he left is bittersweet. I could see his body was failing and he was not much present in this life; yet I was so connected to him that his absence left a big hole.
I realize change is the nature of life. I have been through a lot of death and still I grieve and am sad off and on for long times. I always come to the same realization: the close connection is worth the eventual loss. The loss is not a risk it is a certainty. Still, the good times are so rich and so shiny the sadness is a small and worthy price.