By Alice Daniel
Mary Pitman looks down at a gaggle of Heritage turkeys. They look back. Pitman talks. The turkeys don't. These are the turkeys you traced from your hand as a kid for Thanksgiving. They've got long sturdy legs, larger thighs and smaller breasts. Their feathers are colorful and iridescent. Not long ago, they were in danger of extinction.
The birds strut on the Pitman ranch near the little town of Orange Cove in the San Joaquin Valley. Close by, the flatness of this land rolls into grassy hills that eventually touch the Sierra Nevada. The birds fit right into the landscape just like their ancestor, the wild turkey.
"They're very friendly," Pitman says. "They're not afraid of you. They just have a totally, I think, a very outgoing personality."
Pitman knows her poultry. She runs the company Mary's Turkeys with her husband and two of their sons. Although most Americans will have white broad-breasted turkeys for dinner on Thanksgiving, some will partake in Heritage turkeys, which are making a comeback for their delicious, wholesome taste. By raising and selling thousands of these birds for Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mary's Turkeys is helping preserve America's original breeds: active birds that still run, fly, and socialize.
"There's a few that are more sociable than others," Pitman explains, "others that are kind of aloof flying up in the tree."
The Heritage birds perch in the tree like giant footballs stuck in the branches.
"Oh I wish you could see," Pitman says. "Because they might stand over here and fly 15 or 20 feet and land on top of the farm and they might do that before you leave. They're just beautiful to watch flying, they spread their wings, and they're just gorgeous."
The company operates in 20-hour-days this time of year and also sells other free-range birds like the organic white broad breasted turkeys. In fact, Pitman has a photograph in her office taken by Life magazine in 1957. It's a picture of her father-in-law standing among a flock of those broad breasted fowl.
Americans used to complain back in the 50s of the little pin feathers so they wanted more breast meat and so that's when the cross breeding began, Pitman explains.
The broad breasted birds are raised for one reason: to be eaten. They've lost their ability to survive in nature. They can't breed on their own or run or fly and can barely walk toward the end of their very short lives. They don't even have the sense to get out of the rain.
"They will look up and they will drown themselves," Pitman explains, "so they're not very intelligent just like they tell you."
On the other hand, the Heritage birds know how to interact with their environment. And they breed naturally, something evident on the farm that day.
"Well...We're making turkeys like I said, they still breed naturally here," laughs Pitman. "Sorry they're not very shy are they?"
Bill Niman's family farm BN Ranch is the other large supplier of Heritage turkeys in California. The farm is in Bolinas but today Niman is in Richmond at a cold storage facility where turkeys are being weighed for shipment.
Niman says he and his wife wanted to reestablish breeding flocks of poultry on the rural landscape, the way farms in Marin County used to be. He likens the birds to another barnyard creature.
"They're similar to pigs in that they're just really interesting in how they relate to each other, how they relate to their environment and they're just alive and vibrant," Niman says.
But as gentle as they are with humans, they will viciously kill a bird that appears deviant in some way.
"Paradoxically they're the cruelest animals to each other that I've witnessed in the barnyard," says Niman. "They'll just kill that animal and eat it for some reason. Once they start that process it's not unlike sharks in a feeding frenzy."
Back at the Pitman farm in the San Joaquin Valley, the birds are anything but frenzied as the sun hits the grassy hills with a last brush of light.
"They're getting tired. It's the end of the day," says Pitman. "You see how they're going back underneath the shelter? They probably also sense that it's going to start raining."
And these birds know what to do: seek cover in groups or roost in the trees above the land, watching as Pitman starts her car and drives away.