Election 2020

How a backyard chicken flock and a wild turkey taught a family about unity during a week of division

A man feeds his chickens and turkey.
Eric Mead feeds his chickens and Ms. Perky Thursday in Knife River, Minn.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Eric Mead strides through the grass toward his family’s backyard chicken coop, in a big open field in the woods outside Knife River.

"Here, chick, chick, chick, chick, chick.”

He sprinkles seeds and grain as he walks, calling to his flock.

"Here, chick, chick, chick, chick.”

On cue, nearly two dozen colorful chickens come waddling toward him.

"Here, chick, chick, chick, chick.”

From the side of the coop, a large wild turkey hen, at least twice the size of the chickens scattered around, saunters up and joins the brood as they scratch for food in the grass.

This past summer, after one of their hens hatched five chicks, the Mead family noticed the turkey venturing closer and closer.

"She was on the periphery at first,” said Mead. “It was really interesting to watch. She just slowly over time integrated herself into our flock."

Chickens and turkey.
Eric Mead's chickens and Ms. Perky mill about their yard on Thursday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Now, she even has a name: Ms. Perky. A neighbor started calling her that, and it stuck. She’s part of the neighborhood now. Every night, she roosts on top of the chicken coop or in a tree nearby.

And every morning, she stands next to the coop, waiting for Mead or his kids to let out the chickens.

"And she's right in there, right next to them, eating. The chickens accept her,” he said. “Occasionally there's a standoff here or there, maybe a little scuffle. But she's two to three times bigger than they are, and she seems pretty nonplussed about any aggression that's shown towards her."

Mead's family has grown quite fond of Ms. Perky. And so, apparently, have their chickens.

And maybe it's just because of the moment that we're living in, but the henhouse harmony has gotten Mead thinking that there's a lesson unfolding right here in his yard.

"It's kind of a textbook story of acceptance and inclusion,” he observed. “And it's maybe not what you'd typically think of, but it's really cool that they can get along, even though they are absolutely different."

It all seems fairly striking, to see Ms. Perky so unassumingly coalesce into the Mead family’s flock. But is it unusual for a wild turkey to hang out with a bunch of domestic chickens?

Colleen Carlson, an ag extension educator with the University of Minnesota, raises chickens and turkeys and other poultry on her own small farm in Waseca County. She said this kind of henhouse harmony isn’t typical — but it’s also not unheard of.

"That particular turkey is probably looking for food and shelter and companionship,” Carlson explained. “Turkeys are a flock animal, just like chickens and ducks. They like to be together in a community."

But of course, right now, in this post-election turmoil, any sign of calm unity stands in stark contrast to all the political rancor and division in our country. Can we take any broader lessons from this display of avian harmony?

Beth Ventura, who teaches animal behavior at the University of Minnesota, said we do have to temper our enthusiasm when comparing humans to animals. But one of the many reasons we study animals, she said, is to better understand ourselves.

"In the chicken and the turkey example, they’re different from each other, but obviously in order to sustain those interactions, it’s because both parties are benefiting,” she said. “Maybe the lesson is that collaborating across differences is beneficial to all parties."

Surrounded by his chickens — and Ms. Perky — foraging all around him in the grass outside his home near Knife River, Eric Mead says the unusual interspecies friendship that's unfolded in his backyard has, in a small way, given him a glimmer of something good in a moment of uncertainty.

"There's hope for the country coming together again,” he said, “and we'll all, hopefully, pick up some of the tips from this flock here, and be accepting of people who aren't like us, or think like us."

After all, his backyard proves it — birds of different feathers can flock together, too.