A Turkey Story

In the past here at MuniNetworks.org, we’ve taken the opportunity afforded by this most thankfullest of holidays to have a little fun. And while in previous years we’ve at least nodded towards broadband as a theme, 2020 has been, well, unique. So, full disclosure: this story isn’t about Internet access. But it is about turkeys (one, in particular) and made us all laugh at a recent staff meeting. For this year, that’s good enough.

A Surprise Visitor

It was the summer of 2017, and I lived in southwest Minnesota on a dead-end street next to a park in a small blue house with my wife, our three cats, and our turtle. About half a mile to the north lay a turkey processing plant. Every day, trucks loaded with cages full of turkeys would disappear into the gate. Empty trucks came out the other side. Feathers littered the road on both sides heading in, and all in all it was an unpleasant and unavoidable reminder of industrialized meat production in the 21st century.

One afternoon as I was washing dishes in the sink, a flash of movement through the kitchen window caught my attention. I looked up to see an escapee from the turkey plant prancing around on our lawn. It was white and slightly taller than knee-height, with a mottled pink caruncle bobbing around as it pecked about the grass. I watched it for a few minutes, then went out and put a handful of birdseed on the ground as it dashed away. I wished it well as I went about my day, figuring he’d go about his life as I would mine, and that would be the end of it.

A couple of hours later, however, things took a darker turn. A white truck came down the road and pulled up to the curb outside our driveway, with man in a grey uniform getting out. His badge announced both his employer and his intent: he was a security guard from the meat processing plant, out to round up our new neighborhood resident and bring him back to the slaughterhouse. 

A Delicate Dance

A catchpole in hand, the processing plant employee began chasing the turkey around the sidewalk, across the street, and along the banks of the creek on the other side. Both mine and my wife’s hearts sank, and we figured the turkey — who had spent his entire life crouching in a cage — could only elude the guard for so long. Our turkey friend at one point scurried into our backyard, hiding in the bushes alongside the house. As the guard followed him onto the grass I went out and told him to beat it. On this land, the turkey was free. 

The guard frowned and argued with me for a minute or two before surrendering and retreating to the street, but I don’t speak bird so the turkey didn’t know he was on friendly ground. Eventually, he wandered into open territory, and the chase resumed. For the next hour, to my and my wife’s delight, our nimble little friend hopped through the tree line, along the river banks, across the cul de sac, and through neighbors’ yards. The heavyset security guard came close a handful of times and once tossed his pole like a javelin in desperation, never caught him. Dusk arrived, and the guard gave up and left. I put a new handful of seed near some hedges, clucked at our turkey friend in congratulations, and watched him hunker down tiredly for the night. 

We figured the security guard would be back the following day, with a new plan or reinforcements. Feeling obliged to take action as we sat down for supper, we hatched a plan. That was also when we gave our turkey friend a proper name deserving of his handsomeness, daring, and deft moves: Gregory Peck.

Marshalling Forth

The next morning my wife and I woke around six and duct taped two broom poles together in the garage, stringing a piece of cord along its length in a makeshift pole of our own. Joined by like-minded neighbors from across the street, we set out, and after a couple of minutes of looking we found Gregory picking his way through the brush along the banks of the creek. 

For about an hour the four of us stalked him up and down the street, through the trees, and across a small footbridge over the water. No luck. Though his flight feathers had been clipped, he still managed to elude us. He was extraordinarily quick, and refused to be fooled by four city folk. As we followed, I couldn’t help but remember the Saturdays when, as a child, I regularly accompanied my dad to the animal behavior laboratory at Saint Cloud State University to help feed and clean the cages of the dozen or so pigeons who pecked buttons in Skinner boxes for food pellets. Even small birds in smallish cages are quick, and it takes time to anticipate their movements. I don’t put this on my official job resume, but at one point in my life I could carry four pigeons at once. 

But bird-catching is, apparently, not like riding a bike. I was rusty, and Gregory continued to make a laughing stock of us all just as he had the security guy. It would’ve been funny, except the sun continued to rise in the morning sky and we knew time was quickly slipping away before the guard returned.  

Finally, amid much sweating and not a little swearing (mostly at each other) we trapped Gregory at the top of the creek bank, spread out in a semicircle before him. I slowly moved forward with the pole, hoping to get close enough to get the cord around him. 

And that’s when it happened.

I crossed some invisible threshold and Gregory, watching us askance, took an anxious step away onto thin air. He raised his wings and fluttered down into the knee-high water a few feet below. And, in the space of the next breath, I decided here was my best chance and jumped into the creek after him.

Gregory dashed away, dancing across the water and making a huge, winged racket. I tripped over my makeshift catchpole, caught a mouthful of water, and dropped it to go after him bare-handed. The banks of the creek were my only ally, steep and sandy with little purchase. I chased Gregory down the creek for a few dozen yards, soaking wet after one step and sprinting through the water, angling him against one side of the bank to try and slow him down. Once I judged I was as close as I’d ever get I lunged, arms wide, catching another face full of water and fistfuls of dirt but also, miraculously, Gregory. 

It was then I immediately learned a valuable lesson: there’s a difference between a one-pound pigeon and a twenty-pound turkey.

I sat, half in the water and half in the dirt, holding him firmly to my chest. We both breathed heavily, and I could feel his little heart beating rapidly. His extraordinarily sharp claws dug into one arm. His head was at eye-level, and we watched each other while I silently hoped he wouldn’t decide to peck my eyes out. After a minute or so he calmed a bit, and with the help of my wife, Gregory and I made it up the creek bank and headed across the street behind our neighbors’ house.

Crossing the Finish Line

Once there, we placed him in a makeshift pen of shipping pallets with some water and food and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. We spent some time talking to him, but less than half an hour later the security guard for the processing plant returned and we slunk back across the street. All morning we texted back and forth with our neighbors, who looked online for a permanent home, and hoped Gregory wouldn’t squawk or gobble or trill or whatever the name is for the sounds turkeys make, and give himself away. A couple of times the guard got close, we heard, but eventually gave up and left. We cheered as we heard him drive away.

Mid-morning, we got the good news: our neighbors had found an animal sanctuary on Facebook willing to take him. After a delicate transfer between the pallet holding pen and a large box with plenty of holes, we settled Gregory in the back of their car, stuffed some cash in an envelope for the refuge, and they drove away. Gregory now lives on a farm with a host of feathered, hoofed, and clawed friends, where he will live a long life under the sun and in the snow. I think about him around this time every November.

2020’s been a nightmare of a year, but we wish you all the best and look forward to better times ahead. Have a safe holiday weekend, and please be safe. 


Ry, Michelle, Sean, and Christopher