AS A CHILD, Joe Hutto had every kind of pet imaginable. His parents put linoleum on his bedroom floor and said he could keep almost any critter in his bedroom or outside as long as he kept it clean and well fed. The big rule was no poisonous snakes. Growing up in Florida Joe kept birds, mammals, and reptiles, and most of them slept with him in his bed. At one point he had a small bobcat, a seven-foot boa constrictor (not poisonous), and a gray squirrel all living peacefully in his room.
Joe always wanted to be around as many wild animals as possible. When he was twelve and alone in a misty forest, his whole body tingled when he called to a wild turkey and it snuck up close to him. As a college student, he studied with wildlife biologists. As an archaeologist, he examined animal bones and stomach contents. As a naturalist, he spent long hours in camouflage to learn about wild turkeys and wood ducks. As a wildlife artist, he drew beautiful details. As a trainer, he worked with dogs and horses. As a wrangler, he captured snakes for zoos. But with all his various activities, he rarely got to look at animals in the wild for more than a few minutes.
In 1991, Joe and his wife, Claudia, a teacher in the local gifted program, were living in an old house on a Florida plantation. Tractor drivers there were preparing a swampy area for better quail habitat. They had a hard time seeing into the tall plants on the ground, and they were unintentionally disrupting wild turkey hens on their nests and destroying eggs.
Joe saw an incredible opportunity if he could get some of those eggs. He asked the tractor drivers to bring him any they might save.
Joe had unusual plans for these eggs. He was eager to explore the mystery of what it means to be wild, to see if he could find a window into the secret life of these turkeys. He wanted the new hatchlings to imprint on him, to regard him as their real “mother,” since no hen would be around to care for them. He had tried imprinting before with wood ducks and other creatures, but now it seemed like he had an incredible opportunity to get very close to wild turkeys and learn more about them.
He didn’t expect to get any eggs, but still he waited and checked and waited some more.
ON MAY 3, a stainless-steel bowl showed up on Joe’s doorstep. It was full of wild-turkey eggs. They were bigger than chicken eggs, smooth and bone-colored with small brown flecks. Suddenly Joe was a wild-turkey parent, and the 16 eggs before him needed focused attention.
With no hen to gather them close, the eggs were already getting cold. All tasks of incubation and protection now belonged to Joe. Could he do it? Could he be the “mother”? And what would that mean?
Joe acted quickly. For warmth, he rushed them to the top of a hot-water heater and covered them with towels. He added a bit of water so they wouldn’t get too dry. Then he raced to a neighbor’s house to borrow an incubator. He also got some advice. Keep the eggs at 99.5°F with the humidity at 85 percent. Mark each egg with a small dot and turn it twice a day. Otherwise the yolk will stick to the inside of the shell and the embryo will die.
Joe worked hard for hours. He lined the incubator and the shelf it was on with towels. The rough towel texture would be better than a smooth surface to keep the young hatchlings, called poults, from slipping when they walked. A fall could permanently damage their leg tendons, and they would never be able to stand. This condition is called “spraddle leg.”
Then he used a technique called “candling” to find out which eggs were fertile and would hatch. To do this, Joe observed each egg in front of a strong light. In 15 eggs, he could see a dark shape inside, which was the embryo. The 16th egg had no dark shape: It was infertile and contained no embryo.
About 1:00 A.M. the 15 fertile eggs finally were marked and laid out in neat rows in the warm incubator. They were in a storage room with no windows, so Joe used a fan to keep the air circulating. He was exhausted but so excited too. Right in front of him he had wild turkey eggs and a rare chance to really connect with them.
THE NEXT DAY, Joe stared in wonder at the beautiful eggs, in awe of the potential inside each one. He knew that turkey eggs hatch after 25 days, but he didn’t know exactly how old these were. They were filled with embryos developing cell by cell, step by step, into a mystery he had always wanted to explore: wildness. The wild turkey. As the responsible and caring eggsitter, he found himself spending hours at a time with them. But he wondered, was he doing everything right? How many would survive? What would they need? And would he be ready?
When he could tear himself away from the eggs, he bought a waterer and a 50-pound bag of turkey “starter” feed that was a nutritious mix of vitamins, minerals, and protein. He also picked up two Rhode Island Red chickens. Somewhere he had heard that chickens should be around to teach new turkeys to peck. But Joe felt that this was an insult to wild turkeys everywhere. Did they really need to be taught this behavior?
Two days later, an embryo died. He detected a smell of sulfur when he came into the room. He felt terrible and worried about the 14 remaining eggs. Were they healthy enough? He hoped that at least a few would hatch so that he could live in the world of wild creatures from the very beginning.
DOUBLE DUTY ON EGGS
ON MAY 7, Joe got a second delivery of 14 more eggs from a different nest. The driver reported that unfortunately the hen had been killed by the mower, and at least one egg had been broken with a well-formed young turkey inside. Some eggs were stained with splotches of blood, which needed to be removed immediately so the eggs could breathe.
Joe didn’t take time to candle this new batch by observing their developemental stage in front of a bright light but cleaned and marked each egg with a small dot. He placed them all on a separate rack in the incubator, where they could be safe and warm with the other eggs.
In his notes, he referred to the first group as clutch #1 and this new group that seemed more developed as clutch #2.
Now he was a busy, busy parent of 28 eggs. Twice a day he turned each one. He observed, listened, and sniffed. Taking only brief periods for eating and sleeping, he stayed with them as much as possible. But he didn’t stay quietly.
JOE COULD IMITATE SOUNDS with his voice that wild turkeys make. While the little chicks grew inside the shells, he spoke to them in both “Turkey” and English. He was a bit embarrassed and did this secretly when no one was around. He felt the eggs from the advanced clutch #2 were definitely listening, and soon he was talking quietly every hour or two. He purred, trilled, putt-putted, and spoke English to let them get used to his voice. The poults responded to him with peep peep peep! This back-and-forth gave the growing chicks an early introduction to Joe, just as they would have heard a wild turkey hen and learned to recognize her voice.
As he purred and trilled, Joe wondered if the turkeys would ever hatch. And when should he stop turning the eggs? After 25 days, the birds wouldn’t need more rotation because they could turn themselves. Then they would start to “pip,” or peck the first tiny hole in the shell. Turkeys have a special projection on their beak called an “egg tooth,” which lasts a day or two, solely for this purpose. They also have a temporary hatching muscle on the back of their head that helps them bang the egg tooth against the inside of the shell.
Joe didn’t know when day 25 would arrive but the growing turkeys did. Wild turkeys have been around for 20 million years and the chicks had the wisdom of the ages to know when to pip.
PIP, CRACK, HATCH!
ON FRIDAY, MAY 10, a tiny hole the size of a pinhead appeared on an egg in clutch #2. The first chick had pipped! Joe turned off the fan and gently talked in Turkey and English. For the first time he could hear faint kee kee kees coming from the eggs. Were they talking to him? He yelped and again heard a mumbled response of kees. Back and forth, Joe yelped and listened to the wonderful faint chorus that answered. When they took a rest, Joe closed the incubator and restarted the fan. But he kept checking.
He waited and watched for three more hours. At last the first turkey to pip started to bite around the tiny hole. Using its egg tooth and extra head muscle, it chipped out a larger and larger crack in the shell. Joe cheered it on with turkey pep talks. The hardworking bird made more cracks, and more, and finally broke out of the shell. The whole chipping process took 55 minutes and the little poult emerged wet, weak, and wobbly.
Joe was so excited to see the first one that he hardly knew what to do. Finally he remembered to talk softly to the new arrival. He yelped softly like a hen.
The wobbly little turkey turned toward him. It looked him straight in the eye. It was an incredible moment, a newly hatched turkey staring intensely into the eye of the first living thing it saw. It was a magical look, one that could not be ignored.
Joe didn’t know it yet but this look, and more like it, would take all of his attention for the next two years and change him for the rest of his life.
Text copyright © 2017 by Joe Hutto & Brenda Z. Guiberson
Illustrations copyright © 1995 by Joe Hutto