Wild Turkeys and the Creation Mandate
Eve Lewis Perera
Our house in the Massachusetts Berkshires is at the base of a wooded hill. In the last few years we have been receiving visits from the wild turkeys that live somewhere in the forest above us. They have shining dark blue-gray feathers on their backs, shading to iridescent bronze on their necks. Their wing feathers are barred in brown and white, and beneath these are secondary wings in black with small white markings. The four torn turkeys, which come most often, sometimes fan their tails in a beautiful display, intensifying the impression by flapping their wings loudly Their heads and necks are mostly bald with a bluish skin and red wattles. The hens have well-feathered necks and a longer, slimmer silhouette.
We are greatly moved at the sight of these birds, and house guests can scarcely believe their eyes. We were told that the turkeys had been re-naturalized, and the more I thought about it the more it reminded me of the creation mandate to Adam and Eve, continued by Noah. God told Adam and Eve to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Genesis 1:28b).1 The reason He had put the man Adam into the garden of Eden was "to tend it and keep it" (2:15). Adam's authority over the animals was such that whatever he called each creature, that was its name (2:19).
The first pair brought sin into the world, and as it increased greatly, God prepared to send the flood. At that time he renewed the Creation mandate with Noah, commanding him to take with him seven pairs of every clean animal and of flying birds, and two pairs of every unclean animal, "to keep the species alive on all the face of the earth" (Genesis 7:Sb). The animals evidently trusted Noah: " ... and they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath of life" (7:15). God cared for the animals as well as for Noah and his family. When the rain ceased, "Then God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the animals that were with him in the ark" (8:1). The Lord who is there even when a sparrow falls (Matthew 10:29) values the lives of the animals He has made, and has given man the responsibility for their care and even for their survival. Thus, whether they knew it or not, the people who made it possible for wild turkeys to live in New England were obeying a mandate from God that has been in existence from the beginning. The early colonists found wild turkeys everywhere, and they greatly admired them. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country; he is a Bird of bad moral Character; like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The Turky is a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true native of America.2The last wild turkeys in Massachusetts were gone by 1851, and by 1900 the bird was practically extinct. The use of firearms, coupled with the destruction of their forest habitat for fields and home sites, made the turkeys candidates for rapid oblivion. Unlike passenger pigeons, however, the wild turkeys had some alert defenders. States passed laws to restrict hunting, and special preserves were set aside where they could live undisturbed. What is more, many of the forests, at least here in New England, have grown back since the nineteenth century era when wood was the main source of heat and power.
In an effort to re-establish the birds, game managers tried to release farm-raised birds, a cross between wild and domestic turkeys. (Some South American turkeys had long ago been taken to Europe, where a domesticated breed was developed from them. The settlers had brought some of these to the New World.) Their passivity, which made them adaptable to living within fences, made them incapable of surviving in the wild. Unwary about predators and insufficiently resourceful in food gathering, most of them died. Then the game managers decided to net-trap groups of wild turkeys where they were still found, releasing them into good habitats in areas which lacked the birds. This was so successful that by now there are between one and a half and two million wild turkeys in the United States.3 Since no one can do anything without the Lord's permission and enabling, it was He who gave people the perseverance and the wisdom to carry out this task.
The long, patient campaign to restore the birds seems like one of the finest examples of the modern-day exercise of man's creation mandate. Many people throughout history exercised this mandate, consciously or unconsciously in varying ways. One well-known example was Anna Sewell (1820-1878). Completely crippled some years after both of her ankles were broken in a fall, she wrote the classic children's book Black Beauty out of indignation at cruel treatment of horses. In her day, horses provided nearly all transport in England. They were neglected, beaten, poorly fed, and made to stand long hours in the sun or in extreme cold. Anna Sewell died shortly after her book was published. It had a decided effect for the better on the treatment of horses, besides delighting many generations of children with the sensitive story.
In Petersburg, New York, not very far from where we live, the Berkshire Bird Paradise receives and cares for wounded birds from all over the world, preparing them for return to the wild. If their injuries are too serious for that, they live permanently in pleasant enclosures, and visitors pay a small fee that helps to cover expenses. When I stopped there, intrigued by the name, the owner told me that he thought of the place as a kind of ark. Two bald eagles looking healthy and happy but unable to fly, had been long-time residents at the time of my visit. I suppose Benjamin Franklin might not have wanted to pay the entry fee to see them! One of them was photographed as the symbol of the US Postal Service.
Most people are aware of the massive reforestation in Israel, bringing back the beauty and fertility of the land and improving the water supply. Every year for the winter holiday Tu B'shevat, Jewish people send donations for the planting of more such trees. A huge forest, planted tree by tree, memorializes the six million who were killed in the Holocaust. Like all countries, Israelis hindered by sin as she carries out her creation mandate, but sometimes it seems that it is managed better there than almost anywhere else. One impressive project is called Hai-Bar, "to return the animals of the Bible to the land of the Bible."
Under the late Ottoman Empire, firearms did to the Biblical animals what they had done to the American wild turkey The ostrich mentioned in Job (39:18) was blasted into extinction. So was Israel's native wild ass, possibly the kind Jesus rode on His entry into Jerusalem. A breed of Asiatic wild ass has been found, purchased from the Copenhagen Zoo, and slowly established in the country. Now living in the Negev, these animals are producing live-born foals, and their appearance is similar to that of the lost species. The Oryx antelope, thought by some to the "unicorn" referred to in the King James Bible (Job 39 and elsewhere), was almost extinct when a few animals were captured for breeding in zoos. Now many are naturalized in Israel. It may have been these animals, or some kind of mountain goat, that my husband and I saw leaping across a steep cliff in the En-Gedi Nature Reserve, near the caves where David had hidden from Saul. Israel has 280 nature reserves, covering more than one-fifth of her total land area.4
Stewardship is distorted when theology becomes unbiblical. Nowadays many people reject the Lord and are offended by His Creation plan that man is to have dominion over the creatures. Anyone who wears a fur coat, or even leather shoes or a leather belt, risks being berated by animal-rights activists (occasionally even physically attacked). It is called "species-ism" to suggest that human beings have any authority over animal life. While it is true that people did not wear clothing made from animal skins until after the Fall, nor eat meat until after the Flood, no New-Age edict can return us to innocence and sufficiency.
Unbelieving animal lovers notice correctly that animals do not engage in deliberate rate wrongdoing the way people do, suffering through no fault of their own the consequences of human wrongdoing. They do not know the Bible's explanation: "For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Romans 8:20-21). Ignorant of the only true object of our worship, more and more people have "worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator" (Romans 1:25). Some dreamy theorists urge us to surrender our spirits to the earth itself, saying that it is holy, that it is a goddess called Gaia. They have declared a spring holiday, Earth Day, and many are trying to replace Christmas with a celebration of the Winter Solstice. Even those Christians who, like the Puritans, avoid celebrating Christmas must find this substitution offensive.
With the Bible cast aside, human reasoning nowadays takes us to some pretty extreme positions. An author named Linda Hasseistrom advises humans - as mammals - about their proper winter behavior: "eat, sleep and be hairy" This is meant to be amusing, but it is troubling. She says we eat lots of tasty desserts in the winter because that corresponds to the food foraging of our supposed animal ancestors. Her advice is to "curl up next to a warm furry body and sleep"; laying aside our razors, we should "grow enough fur to cover all that naked hide before it gets frostbitten."5
Although we do not see willed sin in the natural creation, we do see disorders caused by sin. For example, the winds, created as servants of man and of the creatures, are sometimes used by Satan and evil spirits to bring death and suffering. Apparently planning to drown Jesus and the disciples with a storm on the sea of Galilee, the enemies of our souls were thwarted when the Savior, awakened by His terrified friends, ordered the winds to be still (Matthew 8:23-27). Last spring we had a March snowstorm over four feet deep, and one of our neighbors found some dead turkeys in a hollow after the warm weather had arrived. The snow had been so wet and heavy they had been unable to climb out, he said. It was Adam's and Eves sins brought that kind of disorder into the creation, harming all humans and the unsuspecting animals. But it is wrong to suggest that the animals' behavior carries an Edenic purity.
The wild turkeys act very pushy at feeding time. I had to buy them some cracked corn, sprinkling it on the kitchen steps, so they would leave a little bit of seed on the ground under our feeder for the larger songbirds. The biggest torn drove the other turkeys away, while the weakest got chased by all three of the others, no matter how hard he tried to find a safe feeding spot. Once, he approached the kitchen steps silently, hoping he would get some corn without being seen. Instead, he was sent packing with angry thrusts of his rival's beak. He tried giving a beak-jab and a kick in retaliation, but his bravado was not very convincing. As for the hen turkeys, only a few of them tried to get to the birdseed. The weakest tom might let them stay, but the others were relentless. The hens had to stay up on the hill, scratching beneath the snow for tree seeds and berries. When my mother told some of her neighbors about this male-female rivalry, they said, "Well isn't that typical!"
Even in successful restorations, careful responses to our creation mandate, there is a deep poignance. The bluebird has returned to Berkshire County, thanks to the Audubon Bluebird Project, whereby people with open pasture land are encouraged to place bluebird nesting boxes on poles in various places on their property. The bluebird had begun to die away when the old orchards, whose trees furnished wonderful nesting holes, were being cut down. (My husband and I saw the first bluebird of our lives when on a bike ride in 1993.) The sanctuary director, who showed slides of the bluebirds and their eggs for a luncheon group at my request, is delighted with the success of the project. "Still," he said, "I know that someday there will be a silent spring." Rachel Carson's book by that name, written in the sixties, warned us that there would be a day when the songbirds could not live in our world any longer. She was not a prophet, nor even a believer, but it is true that nowadays the number and variety of songbirds is going down, and more crows, which sometimes kill small birds, invade their habitat.
Those sad realizations, along with the treatment of the hen turkeys by the toms, remind us that we live in a fallen, sin-filled world. It should be natural for the toms, which are larger, to protect the slender hens and make sure they get enough to eat. The fact that this does not happen - and that we notice with shock and outrage that it does not - only underlines more plainly that it was meant to be that way when the birds were designed, before sin distorted the world.
Heaven is full of praise to the Lord for His Creation: You are worthy, 0 Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For you created all things, And by Your will they exist and are created. (Revelation 4:11)Chapter 8 of Revelation, when the seventh seal is broken, describes the pain of the natural world as God's judgment falls on sinful man. when the dread judgments, for which the angels and saints will praise our God, are completed, and heaven and earth are renewed, the wolf and the lamb will finally feed together (Isaiah 65;25). Then, perhaps, a big tom turkey will let all the females get to the seed ahead of him, and be glad of it.
Finish, then, Thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; Let us see Thy great salvation perfectly restored in Thee, Changed from Glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise. Charles Wesley, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
1 This and other Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version (Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, 1983).
2 Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Sarah Bache, quoted in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1938), p.228. The plural of"turky' was "turkies."
3 Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, Wild Turkey, Tom e Turkey (Clarion Books, New York, 1989), pp.19-22; David Stemple, High Ridge Gobbler (William Collins Publishers, Inc., New York and Cleveland, 1979), p.47. The turkeys' position has become so secure that 26 states, including Massachusetts, allow brief hunting seasons for them.
4 Insight Guides, Israel (ABA Productions, Singapore, 1986), pp.801-204.
5 Human Hibernation," Dry Krik Review reprinted in Utne Reader, as quoted in column by C.D. Nelsen, Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, MA, January 15, 1994.