Nature “My Life As a Turkey”

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When wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto wants to “talk turkey,” he means something quite different than you might think, because he actually speaks the language of wild turkeys. And having spent more than a year as the full-time parent of a clutch of young turkeys, he learned much more than just how to talk turkey. What started as an informal science experiment became a very personal, very emotional journey that ended up changing his life in ways he could never have imagined. Based on his true story, My Life as a Turkey recreates Hutto’s moving tale of raising wild turkey hatchlings in Florida’s Flatwoods. Nature: My Life as a Turkey airs Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 8 p.m. on Eight, Arizona PBS.

Already possessing a broad background in the natural sciences, Joe Hutto had a life-long interest in and experience with “imprinting” young animals. Imprinting refers to that first moment of life when some creatures form an instant connection with the individual they forever recognize as their mother. It had long been Hutto’s hope to learn about the secret world of wild turkeys by having young turkey chicks, called poults, imprint on him, but obtaining wild turkey eggs or young poults had proven to be next to impossible. So when he arrived home one day to find a bowl filled with wild turkey eggs on his doorstep, he went out immediately to obtain an incubator, determined to become their mother. He had no idea what kind of relentless task he was about to commit himself to.

He began speaking with them even before they hatched, and bonded with them as they emerged from their shells. Then, day after day, he lived as a turkey mother, taking on the fulltime job of raising 16 turkey chicks. It was a role he would learn from scratch and leave him caught up in wonder. There was little he could teach them that they did not already know, but he showed them the lay of the land and protected them from harm as best he could. It seemed they had much more to teach him. The level of awareness and sensitivity of his young family to the world around them simply transcended anything he had experienced before. He learned their individual idiosyncrasies and voices, and became especially fond of two he named Sweet Pea and Turkey Boy. Sweet Pea was a snuggler, and Turkey Boy the bold rascal of the bunch.

During their time together, Hutto dutifully cared for his charges around the clock, roosting with them, taking them on foraging trips and grasshopper hunts, coping with snake invasions, immersing himself in their world. In the process, they revealed their charming curiosity, survival instincts, and surprising intellect. Life was good. But eventually, things changed. His children grew up, and Hutto had to let them go off on their own. It was harder than he ever imagined.

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