Two Sundays before Thanksgiving, my farming partner and I brought a live turkey in a burlap sack to our urban farm on the outskirts of Portland. The lanky brown-feathered bird quietly took her place in our chicken coop.
The turkey was intended to become Thanksgiving dinner, but she had other plans.
It was unusually cold, and in our haste we forgot to clip the turkey’s feathers. So one day last week, Turkey escaped the coop and flew above our suburban street to the top of a tree in the neighbor’s backyard. Our attempts to shoo her from the branches could not convince Turkey to come down.
My partner and I have raised chickens, goats, and ducks in Portland for the past five years. We keep animals because we love interacting with them, eggs and milk being added benefits. Occasionally we’ve made chicken soup out of a rooster, but we rarely eat our flock.
Still, I’d much rather eat a happy turkey that lived its life out on a small farm than a frozen industrial turkey deprived of space and sunlight.
So the next day, we dragged a ladder to the tree and my partner Ali clambered up, but as soon as she got near the turkey, the beast clucked in alarm and soared off. We stood awed by the height and distance of its flight – Turkey alighted on top of a very tall pine, which we couldn’t possibly climb. There she remained, despite the wind, cold and our pleas.
The escape was collectively funny, sad, and mildly embarrassing. It wasn’t a complete surprise: we’ve had our share of breakouts with goats and chickens. Still, the bird’s yearning for survival gnawed at us.
We faced a moral dilemma: If Turkey stayed in the tree, it could die of cold and starvation or be captured by a cat or raccoon. But if we rescued the bird, we would eat her within a week. Which was more humane?
Standing under that tree and cajoling Turkey to descend, I felt like the fox in Aesop’s Fable waiting for the cheese to fall.
There was a more practical question, too: How do you get a turkey out of a tree? Call the firefighters? Animal control? Put up posters and offer a bounty?
Paging Portlandia! Our lives had inadvertently turned into an episode of the TV show that pokes fun at Portland, including its unbound penchant for urban farming.
Friends suggested gobbling loudly, spreading turkey snacks under the tree, spraying the bird with a hose, or (gulp) finding a hunter to shoot her down. One recommended buying a turkey caller at a hunting store. Another told us turkeys have a keen sense of smell, so a turkey decoy might be our only chance.
Many friends pleaded that Turkey had earned her freedom. Others supported talking her down sweetly, then eating her. Still others told us to “let the spirit of Thanksgiving decide.”
Three days after the bird first escaped, I went to do a welfare check on Turkey, only to find her gone. I inspected all area pines, played turkey calls on my cellphone – to no avail. We figured that was the end of it. Turkey had flown away looking for food, or had joined a wild flock escaping Thanksgiving madness.
But that afternoon, a neighbor called – Turkey had been spotted in her front lawn, doing what turkeys do, pecking.
Ali reached home when it was already dark. Flashlight in hand, she spent half an hour searching our one-acre animal pasture before suddenly seeing Turkey perched on the fence a few feet away.
The bird was asleep, but woke up, startled by the flashlight’s beam. Ali turned off the light and backed away.
She crouched close to the ground and sat in silence, immobile, before inching her way toward Turkey and clucking. Ali’s clucks visibly calmed the bird.
Then snap, she reached her hand up and grabbed the turkey’s leg. The bird flapped and tried to fly away, but Ali didn’t let go. She clipped her wings, and put her back in the chicken coop.
That evening, we decided that given Turkey’s travails, we couldn’t possibly eat her. We decided to pardon her and keep her on our farm. I called the grocery store to order a frozen turkey for Thanksgiving.
Despite what we saw as a happy ending, Turkey seemed distressed. She sulked around the coop, refusing to eat or drink. She didn’t mix with the other animals. Maybe she didn’t understand her life had been spared.
Then we figured she might just be lonely. So we made the trek to another farm and bought a turkey tom for our girl.
This time, we clipped his wings right away.
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