On PBS Nature Documentaries, and My Life as a Turkey

by Hari Balasubramanian

One late summer afternoon two years ago, I saw a monarch butterfly casually fly across my office window in Amherst, Massachusetts. If I had not known what monarchs do, I would have only admired its beauty and then forgotten all about it. But since I'd seen a documentary on these butterflies the previous year – how this little creature, barely a few inches long and wide, makes a 2000-mile journey from Canada and US to certain forests in Mexico all by itself, traveling as much as 50 miles each day, navigating its way based on some unknown compass, and then returning back to its northern haunts in the space of multiple generations – since I knew these facts, that moment when I glimpsed the butterfly was suddenly full of wonder and meaning.

I mention this because many nature documentaries, or even short videos, have had a similar effect on me. I like the PBS Nature series the most (full videos available here). The species, habitats and themes vary –and not all the episodes are consistent – but there is always something unusual to learn and contemplate. Just a few random examples: how the male stork, after having made a long journey from Africa to a rooftop nest in a German village, reunites with its late-arriving partner (Earthflight); how a relatively small creature such as the honey badger could be so powerful, intelligent, and – this was the most striking for me – be gifted with a fearless attitude, so much that even lions know to stay away; or, how some astonishing friendships can be formed across species, as in the sanctuary where a goat, unfailingly and without any obvious benefit to itself, helps lead a blind, old horse on its daily graze every single day (Animal Odd Couples).

My Life as a Turkey

Today, though, I'll focus on a Nature episode that won the Emmy award for outstanding nature programming. First aired in November 2011, My Life as a Turkey (full video) skillfully recreates the year that that naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto spent raising 16 wild turkey chicks all by himself, in a forest in Florida. (The qualifier “wild” distinguishes wild turkeys from their domesticated cousins that are consumed as food.)

Joe_turkey

Hutto isn't simply a passive observer. He takes on the role of an emotionally invested mother from the moment the turkeys are born until they are independent. As he writes in Illumination in the Flatwoods, the book on which the film is based: “Had I known what was in store—the difficult nature of the study and the time I was about to invest—I would have been hard pressed to justify such an intense involvement. But, fortunately, I naively allowed myself to blunder into a two-year commitment that was at once exhausting, often overwhelming, enlightening, and one of the most inspiring and satisfying experiences of my life.”

The process of becoming a parent to the newborn of another species is called imprinting. The scientific basis for imprinting was established by the famous Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz. In the film, the wild turkey chicks, immediately after emerging from their egg shells, unequivocally consider Hutto – whose calls they had heard when they were in their shells, and whom they now again hear, see and touch in the first critical seconds after stepping out – as their mother and protector. “Something also moved inside of me,” Hutto says in the voice-over, “something very profound. And I realized that my involvement in this experiment was going to be very personal, a very emotional ride for me…” These moments are captured beautifully in the film (short clip).

Modestly called a “reenactment”, the documentary is actually a genuine recreation, a replication of Hutto's experiment, which happened in 1991. Jeff Palmer, the actor in the documentary, tried imprinting himself in a different forest in Florida, close to twenty years after Hutto's attempt. He was successful; it took Palmer an entire year to raise his own wild turkeys. The filmaking team along with Palmer were able to replicate at least some events and interactions that Hutto had chronicled. This validation makes the film that much more convincing and powerful.

Joe-hutto-film

My Life as a Turkey is also visually stunning. The camera roves ceaselessly over many details of the forest – grass, leaves, fallen logs on the forest floor; deer, squirrels, a fleeting glimpse of a black bear; numerous insects but especially grasshoppers which the turkeys love to hunt; plenty of spiders suspended in giant webs; snakes of all kinds, including an unforgettable shot of a snake sipping water that has collected in a fallen leaf – so many of these details are captured that the viewer doesn't think of the wild turkey in isolation, but as part of a rich and beautiful whole. To Hutto, this glimpse of the forest is no accident: “It seems as if a whole world is opening up to me. It's not just the birds I am getting close to; somehow they allow me passage into a secret side of these oak hammocks…I’ve walked these oak hammocks for over twenty years, and I had no idea how many rattlesnakes there were here. I’d see maybe two in a year. Now with these turkeys we’re finding two or three every day!”

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As a naturalist, Hutto remains constantly curious about the behavior of the turkeys. He makes observations about their intelligence, communication skills, playfulness, and need for affection. Most of them occur in the middle section, when Palmer, enacting Hutto, is shown roaming the forest with his little companions. Here are some observations that I found striking; most of them are backed up by the video images. All quoted sections are based on Hutto's voice-over which I copied from the closed captions.

First, Hutto's amazement on how much the birds already know about the forest:

They have the basic blueprint, about all the plants and all the animals. It's incredibly complete… They are born entomologists. It's already there – they don't have to be taught which insect is dangerous, which one is palatable. They don't have to be taught which snake is harmless and which one is venomous. They know exactly.

The different birds' personalities are expressed in the way they explore the forest. They even seem to have their own individual interests. Sweet Pea and Rosita [two females] have a particular fascination with squirrels. Turkey Boy [a male] met a deer today. I am amazed how bold he is. He walked and was nose-to-nose with it. They were absolutely unafraid. They [the turkeys] absolutely knew that this creature [the deer] was a benevolent neighbor and not a potential predator. And I thought this was a remarkable discrimination, considering that a coyote for example, is a tawny brown animal with big ears and intense stare.

Second, Hutto notices how turkeys seem to react to dead animals, or when things are somewhat askew:

Turkeys displayed a type of obsession over the sight of a dead animal and they would revisit those sites very cautiously and they would examine very closely, and occasionally, they would actually pick up a bone, not in a playful way but in a curious way and drop it. They would observe the skeleton very intensely. And it seemed that they never tired of examining a dead animal and trying to understand what the implication of that was. That behavior does not facilitate survival directly. It's not about predation, it's not about food, it's about understanding the world.

They had a perfect memory of what that entire forest is supposed to look like. If any object was out of order, if a new limb had fallen out of a tree, they would find that limb very disturbing. They would approach a stump of a fallen tree or a rotted tree, and that was a fascinating thing as most things are to wild turkeys. But interestingly, when we approached a very old stump of a tree that had been sawn down by loggers, something about that was very disturbing to a wild turkey. I thought it was a fabulous and interesting response but I don't know why. But here was a stump that had been cut 10, 15, 20 years before and yet there was something not right about that. The turkeys would find it very interesting and actually disturbing.

Third, the intricate vocalizations that the birds use to communicate:

Turkeys in general have this misplaced reputation for stupidity. This experiment of mine has proven quite the opposite. There are many things to suggest that wild turkey are intelligent, but my experience with learning their vocabulary taught me how profound this intelligence actually is. You have to be this close to a creature to understand how it communicates. And in fact they have specific vocalizations for individual animals. And I actually learned these vocalizations and when I would hear a certain vocalization I would know without question they had found a rattlesnake and not a gray rat snake.

I have identified over 30 specific calls, and my vocabulary is growing every day! I am learning to talk Turkey! Interestingly, I learned that, within each one of those calls, there are inflections that have very different meanings…

When turkeys see a hawk soaring in the distance and they're not really disturbed by the hawk's soaring but they want everybody to know that it's there and so they emit what I called a low nasal whine and it causes everyone to be very still and quiet. I didn't have the capacity to understand every vocalization but somehow I had the capacity to understand their meaning and that was an almost magical thing that occurred with these young birds.

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The film's last section shows Hutto grappling with the inevitable. The turkeys are becoming more and more independent and do not need him around any more. Hutto is left, literally, with “an empty nest”. He finds it difficult to readjust. He finds that “their absence seemed to change the ecology completely. And the rattlesnakes seemed to disappear. And I realized that the turkeys had afforded me this privileged experience, this insight into their world that had finally closed its doors to me.”

There are two turkeys who do linger on: Sweet Pea, with whom he has always had an affectionate relationship; and Turkey Boy, with whom he has enjoyed a long and close companionship. But Sweet Pea and her newly laid eggs are preyed on; and Turkey Boy eventually turns aggressive. This makes for a somewhat disturbing conclusion. But the Turkey-Boy story told in the film is stylized and not entirely accurate; for a more nuanced and gripping version, one that also ends more amicably, read the epilogue of Hutto's book, Illumination in the Flatwoods.

A small post-script. Since his wild turkey experiment, Hutto has continued to reach out to other species. He moved to Wyoming where, in one project, he spent many months living alone in the Wind River Mountains, following a herd of bighorn sheep; he writes about it in the book, The Light in High Places. Finally, a recent Nature episode, aptly called Touching the Wild, shows Hutto's long involvement with a herd of mule deer, whose trust and acceptance he gains not by imprinting, but through long hours of being patiently present in the vicinity of the herd.

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