LANDER — Joe Hutto had to become a turkey for his experiment to work.
A true turkey mother wouldn’t eat a sandwich, so he didn’t eat them.
A turkey mother wouldn’t pull a camera out of her feathers and photograph her family, so Hutto didn’t do that, either.
He said goodbye to the people he knew and left human language behind for yelps and whines.
For years, the naturalist had wanted to find turkey eggs, imprint them and observe wild turkey behavior without outside influence.
“I wanted to become a wild turkey,” said Hutto, 66, of Lander. “I wanted to do everything that I could to insulate them from the human experience. I wanted to be the fly on the wall.”
Hutto was living in the north Florida swamp in the early 1990s when a farmer started mowing on his nearby plantation, destroying turkey nests as he went. Hutto asked if he could have the eggs should the farmer come across another nest.
He didn’t expect to get anything. Wild turkey nests were nearly impossible to find. And yet one day he returned home to find a dog bowl filled with turkey eggs sitting on his front porch.
Hutto was unprepared. He didn’t even have an incubator.
He knew the implications of his project. Wild turkeys were precocial birds: They were born alert and ready to run but would need attention from their mother 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until they were grown. If he went through with it, Hutto would have to leave his life to become a turkey mom to 14 wild birds.
He took to the woods.
“He just disappeared,” said Leslye Hutto, Joe’s wife and a friend at the time of the experiment.
What happened next would take Hutto the better part of two years with no human contact. The stack of journals he kept would become a book, and now, two decades later, a PBS “Nature” series documentary that aired nationally this month.
The imprinting process began before the turkeys hatched. When the eggs were mature, Hutto made turkey-like noises, approximating what a mother might say in the nest.
“And the eggs would answer me,” he said. “They would all start peeping and trilling and then would get tired, you could tell, and it would sort of die down.”
A week or two later, the first poult fell out of his shell, wet and confused.
The turkey fumbled. Hutto made the turkey sound he repeated day after day to the eggs. The poult stopped, looked Hutto in the eyes and hopped across the floor of the incubator to him.
As the poult huddled against his face, Hutto said in the documentary, something moved inside him.
“Something very profound.”
Joe Hutto: Turkey Mom
It took two days for the eggs to hatch. With each one, Hutto yelped, and the turkeys followed his voice, wobbling toward him.
Hutto put the turkeys in a box, covered them so they wouldn’t be disturbed and drove to his friend’s property in a more remote area of north Florida suitable for wild turkeys. He’d raise them there.
Since he was a boy, Hutto experimented with imprinting, the process through which a newborn animal discovers its mother. Hutto conducted formal studies in college and researched the principle, pioneered by Austrian animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz. At birth, animals imprint through sight, smell and sound, and the process can take anywhere from seconds to months. With turkeys, it takes moments.
“And once it does, it’s irreversible,” Hutto said.
In his youth, Hutto’s parents put a sheet of linoleum on his bedroom floor and told him he could bring in any animal he wanted, as long as it wasn’t a poisonous snake, Hutto said.
“I brought in everything,” he said.
A reporter once asked him to name all the animals he has imprinted. Hutto’s list read like a zoo roster. Raccoons, opossums, foxes, snakes, various primates, gray squirrels, you name it. He once raised a family of wood ducks from eggs and lived with them in the water.
“I was more or less obsessed with it,” Hutto said. “I was kind of born a little scientist and didn’t know it.”
Hutto has been a field archaeologist, zooarchaeologist, rancher, horse trainer, Labrador retriever trainer, wildlife artist, musician and writer. He worked on a deer ranch, analyzed bones for a history museum and collected snakes to sell to universities and research facilities.
He managed a zoo once, too, and slept inside a hot dog hut he converted into an apartment.
In his turkey experiment, Hutto had to stay with his birds from sun up until dark. The family started its morning at dawn and walked through the woods all day. When the turkeys were small they followed Hutto, who led them to areas that offered plenty of grasshoppers and protection from predators. By the time the turkeys reached 12 weeks, they decided where to go, covering miles in a day. When they rested, Hutto sat and took notes.
He carried with him a small daypack that held his pen, notebook, water bottle and a few apples.
Hutto wore only faded blue shirts, the color close to that of a turkey hen’s head.
At night he waited until the turkeys fell asleep before sneaking away to his cabin. If he left too soon, they’d fly off the roost and follow him.
Scientists had previously identified 30 different turkey vocalizations. Hutto said he learned the subtleties within each call. When a turkey warned of a nearby snake, for example, Hutto said he could understand what type of snake it was. Turkeys could not only articulate a predator was near, but express its exact breed, Hutto said.
The turkey mother noticed his birds had different personalities, just like people. Turkey Boy was inquisitive and into everything. Sweet Pea needed Hutto’s affection and would settle into his lap whenever he sat.
The turkeys were born with an innate knowledge of what was edible and what was dangerous. But they were also curious about aspects of their world that didn’t benefit survival. The turkeys played with other species. Hutto said the turkeys had a complex understanding of the ecology he could never have.
“We’re not all that conscious,” Hutto said. “There are a lot of creatures out there that are paying way more attention, that are much more wide awake than we are.”
Hutto said a universal phenomenon occurs with anthropologists in the field.
“You always become confused about your social identity, and more and more you are less attached to the thing you came from and you become more and more assimilated into this new culture,” he said.
“That sort of happened to me with these turkeys.”
The birds had a distinct culture and vocabulary, and they included Hutto. He was their turkey mother, and every day they reinforced that he was part of the group. To Hutto it felt like they were one organism.
“After six months, it started getting confusing, as silly as that sounds,” he said. “I couldn’t tell where they ended and I began.
“... Something would happen every day at some point. We would link up, and it was life-altering. It’s almost embarrassing to say, but something like that was happening.”
Mating season began in spring. The birds segregated, and the females moved up to 10 miles away to nest.
Hutto went into the woods and spent whole days trying to find one of his turkeys. In several months, the birds were all gone.
“Everybody started drifting away,” Hutto said.
He lost turkeys to disease and predators throughout the project. Sweet Pea was killed on her nest.
Turkey Boy returned one day and remained with Hutto for another year. He theorizes the turkey got separated from his brothers and came home.
When mating season returned, Turkey Boy attacked Hutto and flew at his face, perceiving him as one of his brothers. The fighting went on for weeks, but when the season ended, Turkey Boy backed down and left.
Once again, Hutto was alone.
The turkey project took a physical and mental toll.
Hutto had no income for a year and a half. Friendships and relationships suffered, he said.
He never slept more than five or six hours a night and couldn’t eat all day. The Florida swamp, reaching temperatures into the 100s with extreme humidity and biting insects, left Hutto drenched in sweat and bitten.
The turkey family he knew was gone, and Hutto felt depressed. He had been in a high-stress, high-emotion environment for an extended period of time, and suddenly it all went away.
“I was down and I found it very difficult to become interested in anything. Nothing seemed to have any meaning to me,” Hutto said. “Nothing could measure up to that level of intensity.
“... What it made me feel was, ‘OK, I don’t want to go back to being me.’
“You’re left sort of empty after that, and that’s what I felt.”
‘My Life as a Turkey’
Hutto hired a stenographer to transpose the stack of journals he kept for two years. She handed him a 350-page manuscript.
For several months Hutto transformed his day-to-day calendar of events into narrative form. He knew a friend who knew a friend in New York and worked up the courage to send his manuscript to Lyons & Burford Publishers.
At first, editor Lilly Golden wondered what on earth would possess a man to become a wild turkey mother. Reading the manuscript, she was stunned.
“I was really shocked at what a riveting story this was,” Golden said.
“... It really speaks to our loneliness as a species. Everyone feels a yearning to connect, and Joe connects for us. I think that’s what makes this book so profoundly moving.”
“Illumination in the Flatwoods” published in 1995 and has four editions.
“It just sort of chugged along,” Hutto said. “It never died.”
New Yorker magazine ran an article on Hutto and his project a decade later. Then, three years ago, a London film producer called Hutto. He read the article and wanted to make a documentary.
The team would hire an actor with a wildlife background to play Hutto’s part, and they would replicate the entire experiment, imprinting turkeys at birth and following them to adulthood.
“When he first pitched this thing to me, I just wanted to say, ‘There’s not a chance in hell you’ll be able to do this,’” Hutto said. “I almost couldn’t do it and I was by myself in a perfect situation.”
Academy Award-winning production company Passion Pictures got the green light, and for a year and a half a crew filmed a new family of turkeys in Florida, capturing the same behaviors Hutto had discovered.
“It just worked beautifully,” Hutto said.
The BBC/PBS “Nature” series documentary “My Life as a Turkey” aired this summer in Europe and made its U.S. debut this month. The film has already won accolades, including the award for best writing at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.
Since the turkey project, Hutto has written a book exploring the declining Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep population, “The Light in High Places.” Today Hutto and his wife are observing mule deer near their home, and Hutto is working on a book about their experiences.
For Hutto, his imprinting projects have been about our connection to wildlife. They’ve shown how integrated we can become with our ecology and other species.
“People love knowing that,” Hutto said.