Roles reversed as tom turkey takes over care of nest
Pulling into the driveway of Tim Sutherland's house near the Fulton/Izard County line, everything looks much like it does at any of the other farms that dot the landscape up and down Highway 9.
Walking through Sutherland's yard, everything seems to be normal; a landscaped garden project nearing completion, an overly-affectionate 7-year-old dog eager for attention and a fenced area containing a number of chickens doing what chickens do.
The first sign that something is a little out of the ordinary about Sutherland's farm and poultry-raising operation is spotted when taking a casual glance into his turkey pen.
Looking through the web wire fence that houses Sutherland's turkeys, it appears as though a male turkey, a tom, is lovingly sitting on a nest of turkey eggs. And although looks can indeed be deceiving, this time they are not. It is a tom and he is sitting on a clutch of turkey eggs.
"I see it every day and I still don't believe it," said Sutherland, a native of Oregon who relocated to his current home near Oxford a little over a year ago.
The tom, fittingly called Tom by Sutherland, began making the nest his own on the 13th of June, and has yet to surrender it to either of the two hens that lay the eggs and share the pen space with him.
"He started sitting on the nest and doesn't want to give up those eggs," Sutherland said. "He has become really protective of them. He even takes better care of the nest than the hens did. They were kind of sloppy, but he has pulled the straw up real tight around the eggs. He thinks that's his appointed duty."
After having raised "turkeys, chickens and every kind of poultry you can think of, along with just about any animal ever seen on a farm," Sutherland has never seen, or even heard about, a tom taking over for a hen.
"I just have never seen anything like this before," he said. "I talked to the people at the Sand Hill Preservation Center (Calamus, Iowa) and they said that on a very rare occasion, an older tom might show a little interest in a nest of eggs, but they lose it pretty quickly. This one hasn't."
Sutherland's domestic turkeys, of the Black Spanish variety, are about 11 months old.
"The Black Spannys are direct descendants of wild turkeys," he said. "Maybe this is something that happens in the wild that people just don't know about. This might take place in the woods, but I don't think I've heard of it there, either."
One wonders just how the two hens feel about a male taking over a chore normally associated with motherhood?
"I had to fence off the nest and Tom from the two hens. They kept disrupting the nest by laying more eggs in it," Sutherland answered. "There were eight eggs when he started off sitting, but the hens kept getting in the nest to lay more, and it disturbed Tom from taking care of his new job, so I fenced the hens off so they can't get in there. They go in the woods to lay now."
And what of the little poults who will soon hatch, only to find daddy standing there instead of momma?
"He'll be really protective of the poults, just like he is now," Sutherland said. "The poults in the eggs are really tuned into the sounds their parents make, so they've heard Tom for awhile now and they should be familiar with him."
A confused set of parents is not the only thing that Sutherland's young poults have to overcome. The night of the county's first real rainfall in a couple of months (June 30) was also the night a hungry varmit visited the turkey pen for a late-night snack.
"I'm not sure what it was," said Sutherland, who is in the process of further varmit-proofing the pen. "It got one egg, but didn't carry off the poult that was in it. If it was a raccoon, it probably would have wiped out the whole nest, so I don't think it was that. Maybe a strike of lightning during the storm scared it off and kept further damage from being done."
So just as the old saying goes: "Just when you think you've seen it all ..."
"If he goes full term and the eggs hatch," said Sutherland, "that might be one for the Book of World Records."