For These Two Chicks, Any Mother Will Do Some birds are easier than others to hand-raise. Wild turkeys present special challenges, as commentator Julie Zickefoose discovered one morning not long ago. She found two chicks and had to act quickly to make sure they didn't start to think of her as their mother.

For These Two Chicks, Any Mother Will Do

The two turkey chicks rest. A heat lamp provides warmth in the absence of a mother turkey. Courtesy of Julie Zickefoose hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Julie Zickefoose

Julie Zickefoose often has her hands full of injured and orphaned birds on her 80-acre nature sanctuary near Whipple, Ohio.

It started at dawn, this strange bird call, circling all around our yard, seemingly nowhere and everywhere at once. Peep, peep-peep. Peep, peep-peep. I'd never heard it before. By noon, I was determined to chase it down.

It didn't take long.

Two downy chicks the size of soda cans came stepping out the woods when they heard my voice. Wild turkeys, 5 days old, their round heads turning this way and that as they peeped. They were lost, and looking for their mother.

Turkey chicks don't linger in the nest. As soon as they're dry from hatching, they're walking behind their mother, picking up their own food. But turkey broods can be large, and chicks can get split off from the bunch. I let them wander around the yard for another hour or two, the very picture of vulnerability. Finally I sighed, bent down and scooped them up, installing them in a pet carrier. I would take them on a turkey hunt.

Plunging through briars and nettles, pet carrier under my arm, I walked slowly through woods, sunny openings and raspberry patches, listening for the thunder of wings, a whine, cluck or putt -- anything at all. The poults shrilled from their carrier.

I found a molted turkey feather, shining bronze in the green, but that was it. After two hours, I accepted defeat. I set up a heat lamp to warm them, and watched them tie into a big dish of mealworms. When their crops were full, silence reigned for a few minutes. And the peeping started again.

Lost baby chickens peep. Lost baby turkeys HOLLER.

Julie Zickefoose, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, holds a turkey poult. Courtesy of Julie Zickefoose hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Julie Zickefoose


They were distressed. I sat down next to them and instinctively gathered them to my chest. The shrilling calls turned to soft purrs. Little heads drooped, eyes closing. I felt my heart lift, flutter and settle over them.

I walked into the living room. "Pick out a good movie, kids. You have a job to do. These baby turkeys need a good cuddle and a long nap." I handed each of my children a turkey and pondered what to do.

Even looking at this heart-melting scene, I felt the devil's pitchfork behind me. You can't fool around with baby turkeys, because they rapidly imprint on their caretakers and get to thinking they're people. And come next spring, you could have an 18-pound gobbler trying to mate with your head.

I hit the Internet. The Southeast Ohio Poultry Breeders Association website produced a helpful woman with a phone number for a man who raises heirloom bronze-colored turkeys not 15 miles away from me. I called his cell phone, finally connecting about four hours and 2,500 loud, shrill peeps later.

He was willing to take our orphans. The foster mother wouldn't be wild, but she'd be the right size, color and shape, and there would be other poults who would teach them to eat. With luck, they'd eventually be released to search out their own kind. We fed them once more and piled in the car to deliver them to their savior.

I got home after dark, thankful for the Internet, thankful for poultry fanciers, tender children and a day well and oddly spent.