When The Turkeys Walked

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Poultry-science chief W. M. Insko, Jr., of the University of Kentucky, recalls meeting turkey herds on his way home from school when he was a boy. Once, he says, a flock reached town at dusk. The town was served by a small power plant, and not knowing about the arrival of the birds, the plant attendant turned on the street lights. Instantly hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners were perched in trees or on rooftops. Anything, Heinrich said, could spook turkeys on drives: a howling dog, a rifle shot, a flutter of white paper, an engine letting off steam, a fox barking. Sometimes they got mad at the drovers and attacked them.

Turkeys favored trees for roosting, but roofs were nice too. This could prove disastrous. A Vermont-to-Boston flock once picked the roof of a schoolhouse for sleeping, and it caved in. The schoolmaster, working late inside, barely escaped alive.

Another Boston-bound flock collapsed the roof of a covered-bridge tollhouse. The tollkeeper had been slow about raising the gate, and a turkey flew onto the roof, probably to see if crossing by bridge was a sound idea. What one turkey does, others imitate. So many landed on the roof that it crashed down. Most of the profits of that turkey drive went for a new roof.

Drives could produce fun as well as grief, for sometimes rival flocks raced. Once a duck farmer in the tiny town of Denver, Arkansas, bragged about his birds as walkers. A turkey raiser laughed at the brag and challenged him to a race to the poultry market at Springfield, Missouri, some sixty miles away. As everyone knows, ducks have short legs and waddle, while turkeys, if they think it worth the trouble, can out-run a pony for a way. The turkey man’s dare was taken, bets were placed, and details were arranged. Aesop could have made a fable of the result.

On the day set, the turkeys were soon out of sight, leaving the waddling ducks behind. When the sun began to sink, however, the turkeys picked trees for a night’s repose. The ducks kept waddling. Their drover lighted his lantern and walked ahead, his son bringing up the rear. Eyewitnesses (whose memories, perhaps, might have been slightly stretched) said the ducks travelled all night, and were in Springfield next day before the turkey man got his birds out of the trees.

Cattle are still driven to market in some places, and a motorist on a back road can still find himself engulfed in a flood of sheep going somewhere in their goofy way. Turkeys, too, may be driven short distances: a few years ago, on the way from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Cheyenne, Wyoming, I encountered a flock at evening. But just as the great days of stock drives are over, so, too, is the memory of turkey walks fading. There are too many fences and cars, and trucks get the birds to their destinations faster and in better condition for the oven. Turkey-raising has become almost as precise a production-line process as building automobiles. This hasn’t spoiled the taste of roast turkey, but the romance has gone.