LANDER, Wyo. — Joe Hutto had to become a turkey for his experiment to work.
“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.”
The naturalist 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.
Wild turkeys are precocial birds: They’re born alert and ready to run but need attention from their mother 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until they are grown. Hutto would have to leave his life to become a turkey mom to 14 wild birds.
Hutto spent the better part of two years with no human contact. The stack of journals he kept became a book, and now, two decades later, a PBS “Nature” series documentary that aired this month.
The imprinting process began before the turkeys hatched. When the eggs were mature, Hutto made turkey noises, approximating what a mother might say in the nest.
A week or two later, the first poult fell out of his shell, wet and confused. 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.
It took two days for the eggs to hatch. With each one, Hutto yelped, and the turkeys followed his voice.
The turkey 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.
Scientists had previously identified 30 turkey vocalizations. Hutto said he learned the subtleties within each call. Turkeys could not only articulate a predator was near but also express its exact breed, Hutto said.
His birds had different personalities. 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.
“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.
“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.
In several months, the birds were all gone. 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 that 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.
The turkey family he knew was gone, and Hutto felt depressed.
“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.”
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 and worked up the courage to send his manuscript to Lyons & Burford Publishers.
“Illumination in the Flatwoods” was published in 1995 and has four editions.
“I was really shocked at what a riveting story this was,” editor Lilly 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.”
Three years ago, a London film producer called Hutto wanting to make a documentary. The team would hire an actor with a wildlife background to play Hutto’s part, and they would replicate the 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.”
The Academy Award-winning production company Passion Pictures got the green light, and for a year and a half a crew filmed a family of turkeys in Florida, capturing the same behaviors Hutto had discovered.
The BBC/PBS “Nature” series documentary “My Life as a Turkey” aired this summer in Europe and made its U.S. debut this month.
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.