You'll love the stuffing out of our turkey tale!

Just for kids

November 25, 1999|By Kelly Milner Halls | Kelly Milner Halls,Chicago Tribune

When it comes to naming man's best friend, some turkey owners say, "Move over Spot. It's time for a fine feathered friend."

Why turkeys? It's a matter of heart, says John Sturgeon of Atascadero, Calif., who raised the birds for 15 years. "They are not very smart," he admits, "but they are canny and extremely loyal."

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Clark raised her favorite turkey, "Thanksgiving," from a hatchling. Last year the plump, 24-pound hen was named the Arkansas State Fair's Junior Reserve Grand Champion. Clark went home with a trophy, a four-year college scholarship and $3,700 cash.

Her affection for the birds is a little more practical than John Sturgeon's. "I try not to get attached," she says. "I only have them about 12 weeks before they go to auction." Once auctioned, turkeys like Thanksgiving either wind up as breeding stock or high-priced eats. (Jennifer's winning bird will breed.)

But Clark admits the young chicks did bond with her. "Even as babies, they definitely recognized me," she says. "Every morning, when I went outside to feed them, they'd start running around and flapping their wings."

One of Sturgeon's birds got more excited than that. "I had a female named Irene that developed a crush on me," he says. "I would take my guitar outside to the pasture and sing to the turkeys. Irene would tremble and quiver."

Cross species affection is possible, says Frank Jones, a University of Arkansas poultry expert. "But I'm not sure how much would be actual behavior and how much would be human perception."

Then again, maybe Irene was drunk. "Hey, it happens," says Sturgeon. "Every summer, when the plums get ripe, hundreds fall to the ground and ferment." After pigging out, "the birds get drunk," he says. "They walk sideways. They stagger. They gobble erratically and eventually flop to the ground."

Drunk or sober, Sturgeon says turkeys will always be his bird of choice. "When Ben Franklin said our national symbol should be the turkey, not the eagle, he was right. The turkey is, without a doubt, the noblest of birds."

Noble if you can deal with manure, Jones says. "I doubt seriously that you'd be able to house-train a turkey. But (that) affection isn't unusual. Even most commercial turkey growers come to sort of like working with the birds."

Do live turkey owners still eat the traditional holiday feast? "Sure," Clark says. "I was raised to see livestock as livestock." Even Sturgeon admits the habitually hateful turkeys in his flock wound up baked or broiled.

But one thing is clear. Turkeys are easy to love -- inside (our stomachs) and out.

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