There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
-Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”
Many years ago, when I first read this poem, I thought that Frost was writing about turkeys. I thought that “oven bird” was a kind of vernacular derived from turkeys’ ubiquitous interment in ovens on Thanksgiving Day. And I thought the sense of alienation suffusing the poem aptly captured the lonely, abstracted status of turkeys in a culture that has so throughly devalued and diminished them.
So even now that I know there is an actual bird called the Oven Bird, and that it is not a turkey, I cannot help but think of this poem every Thanksgiving season, and of the hundreds of millions of turkeys languishing inside industrial sheds, whose broken bodies can never comply with their ancient instincts to frolic and fly, whose skeletons cannot even support the weight of their outsized chests, the result of decades of selective breeding for unnaturally rapid growth of their breast muscles; who can barely walk or stand, much less run, much less fly into winter branches as their wild cousins do.
In industrial design, “planned obsolescence” refers to the practice of designing products with artificially limited useful lives so that they will become obsolete, that is, no longer functional after a certain period of time. It’s a helpful analogy through which to view our forced disabling of domestic turkeys, who have been bred to grow “meat” or muscle tissue so large and so fast that their organs and bones cannot keep pace with their massive chests. They are so grossly overweight and disproportioned that most suffer lameness, respiratory disorders, heart disease, and other ailments related to our relentless manipulation of their genes.
But in their minds, domestic turkeys still carry an immense ancestral map, and the inherited instincts of centuries of wildness. Their bodies’ built-in malfunctioning is a source of constant bewilderment and anguish to these lively, inquisitive birds.
In her book, More Than a Meal, Karen Davis writes:
“Over the years, I have frequently watched adult white “meat-type” turkeys calculate a leap onto a perch, be it a roosting board, a fence top, a bale of straw, or a sawhorse. They will test the spring from the ground before actually making it, as if reliving an experience built into their bones and brain cells. They will revise their position, test it again, and quit if they perceive it’s a no go, with a show of disappointment and frustration, often circling the area with their necks craned before giving up entirely… the only thing that stops them from perching is their weight and accompanying disabilities.”
To learn more about the emotional lives of turkeys, and for a list of delicious turkey-free alternatives for your holiday menu, please see our feature, 12 Reasons You May Never Want to Eat Turkeys Again.