Monday, October 11, 2010
Posted by Kate at 3:57 PM
It's been almost four months since I accepted a three-week-old, one-eyed refugee turkey poult from farming friend. I thought an update might be in order. To make a long story short, when the turkey first arrived, it was a pale, shy little thing...
And now it's grown into a shy, bigger thing that shows the full colors of its heritage breed - Bourbon Red. (Sorry there's not much there for scale. It's exceedingly hard to take even a decent picture of this turkey.) If you want more detail, read on.
We had hoped the suggestive power of the male pronoun would influence it to grow into a large tom turkey. Turkeys are evidently not biddable that way: it looks as though we've got a hen. When we called her anything besides "he," we've called her Thanksgiving. But between her sex, the slow growing habits of her breed, and the fact that she was a runty sort of bird to begin with, she's almost certainly going to get a Thanksgiving reprieve. We're hosting the high holy day for extended family this year, and there's no way she'll begin to feed the 17-23 people who will likely be attending.
This doesn't mean of course that she's now a pet. No, the plan is to have her on the table for New Years. We considered Christmas, but I hold my holiday meal traditions dear. Very dear. At Christmas it has to be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. That leaves only New Years, which, in our house, to this date, has no traditional meal associated with it. The problem which presented itself when we realized Thanksgiving wouldn't be ready for Thanksgiving, is where to house her when the weather turns really cold.
The chickens will go into their winter quarters sometime between mid-November and early December, depending on weather, and when we get our act together to rebuild their pen in the shed. Then we have to decide whether to put the turkey in with the chickens, or keep her out in the cold weather on her own. I tried a few times over the summer to introduce the turkey to the hens. She certainly wanted to be near them, and when her pen wasn't in viewing distance of them, she would start up her distress peep, and keep it up for an hour or more. But the few times I introduced her physically to the hens, they pecked at her viciously and immediately. So those attempted introductions didn't last more than a few seconds.
But the turkey's slow growth has nonetheless been steady, and just recently I tried introducing one hen at a time into her pen. The visiting hen immediately tried to assert herself with Thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving is now having none of it. Up went the tail feathers and out stretched the wings. Thanksgiving still doesn't weigh very much, but she looks mighty big when she puffs herself out like that, and it doesn't take much to outweigh a laying hen. She went right after the hen's comb and kept after it as well as a one-eyed turkey can. (Which is to say, only moderately well. It was actually a tiny bit comical how Thanksgiving would momentarily "lose" the hen anytime the hen was to her left.) Each visiting hen quickly discovered the utility of hiding under the hanging watering can, and no serious harm was done. Now that the fear of turkey has been put into each hen individually, methinks that if I do need to house them all together, the hens will have a healthy respect for Thanksgiving. And Thanksgiving will promptly be a little overwhelmed by trying to track four darting chickens with only one good eye. That's the hope anyway - that detente will be reached due to instilled respect and a natural handicap.
If it doesn't work out that way, well, something I heard not long ago from a turkey hunter makes me think she might fare outside in the cold weather just fine. Did you know that hunters aim for the turkey's head when hunting them? I was astonished and asked why in the world they'd aim for such a tiny target on such a large bird. Apparently the .22 is the rifle of choice for turkeys, and the bullet cannot penetrate the turkey's feathers. They act as armor! Now if I hadn't seen the feathers developing on Thanksgiving as she grows, I wouldn't find this remotely plausible. They are awfully impressive feathers, thickly layered and tough. So maybe it's true. I know there's no logical parallel here, but I figure if those feathers can stop a bullet, they can probably keep a turkey pretty warm through early winter as well.
Anyway, that's the plan: to have a minor turkey feast about five weeks after the major turkey feast. I haven't decided yet exactly how to handle the slaughtering. Novella Carpenter swears by branch loppers for the killing, which we have. On the other hand, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hangs his birds, both domestic and wild, for up to a week. As I understand it, a bird for hanging shouldn't have any exposed flesh, which would rule out the loppers, though I could be wrong. I must admit the idea of hanging intrigues me, particularly since it's going to be a very cold part of the year when we slaughter Thanksgiving. There won't be any flies to worry about, and the outdoor temperature will be roughly that of a refrigerator. We could hang inside the shed, so no animals to worry about. I like gamey meats, and hanging is said to enhance the flavor of game, so it all sounds good in theory. Still, I have no experience at all with hanging birds, which makes me cautious. I wouldn't want to ruin our very first bit of home-raised meat. If you have any input about techniques for slaughtering a turkey, or experience in hanging game birds, please chime in with a comment.