Environmental Integrity

What Good are Wild Turkeys?

Joe Hutto's Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey

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TITLE: What Good are Wild Turkeys?

AUTHOR:  Jim Stokely

SOURCE:  Joe Hutto, Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey

For six months in 1991, from May through October, naturalist Joe Hutto raised two dozen wild turkeys in the flatwoods of northern Florida – and allowed them to imprint on him.  The Oxford dictionary defines this process as a young animal coming to recognize another animal, a person, or even a thing “as a parent or other object of habitual trust.”

Thus began a spellbinding experiment which Hutto describes in his 1995 book Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey.  Why imprinting? As Hutto explains: “I have had various experiences with the imprinting process in wild animals…I have always considered that the best way to know a wild animal’s true nature is by sharing your bed with it.”  And why wild turkeys?  For one thing, “Our oldest bipedal ancestor was preceded by the wild turkey by tens of millions of years.”  For another thing, “Wild turkeys have enormous enthusiasm for life.  From the moment they leave the egg, they are exuberant and aggressive.”

By mid-June, it is clear that the imprinting has been successful: "Imprinting has caused them to look to me for information on the degree of danger associated with each situation or object.  I am impressed with how they desperately want signals and communication from me, and how acute their attention to me is.  The slightest yelp or purr from me can bring about the most profound behaviors: freezing, scattering, assembly, et cetera."

As Hutto leads the wild turkeys on daily foraging expeditions, snakes are a constant danger.  One day Hutto discovers that “a large grey rat snake has completely eaten a young turkey.” A month later, “a very large rattlesnake suddenly recoils from my foot. She makes a high coil, towering over the knee-high grass, and proceeds to buzz and hiss loudly – she is furious. I give a legitimate and heartfelt alarm purr, and the turkeys explode into flight, putting and running to a pile of rotting pine logs thirty feet away.”

But who is leading whom? “A wild turkey always proceeds as if he were in the perfect place at the perfect time,” says Hutto in September.  “All his needs may be satisfied here in this moment…I find it difficult for me to avoid being goal oriented in our outings, betraying the moment for some abstraction up ahead…There is not profit in this, and these wild turkeys constantly remind me to do better.  Their experience, which I believe to be vastly richer than my own, affords them an awareness and evolutionary maturity that is far superior. I have made this natural world my devoted life’s work, but they remind me that I am a clumsy pilgrim in a realm that can never truly be my own.”

By October, Joe Hutto is facing his experiment’s equivalent to a parent’s empty nest syndrome: “Looking at the large, powerful birds which surround me now, I cannot reconcile the change that has occurred since I was caring for an incubator full of eggs.  Despite having been with them every day of their lives, it appears to me that something must have occurred while l was not looking…As we leave the confines of my language and culture, these graceful creatures become in every way my superiors. More alert, sensitive, and aware, they are vastly more conscious than I. They are in many ways, in fact, simply more intelligent.  Theirs is an intricate aptitude, a clear distillation of purpose and design that is beyond my ability to comprehend.”

And finally: “The words of Joseph Campbell quietly overtake me: ‘Illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things.’”

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