Thanksgiving Birds' Ancestors: Walking with Dinosaurs

When a boy from Hackensack, New Jersey, takes on the mantle of a gentleman farmer, it's no surprise that his new life will offer surprises. Commentator and hobby farmer Ken Chiacchia tells us how a growing appreciation for his barnyard birds has awakened a childhood fascination with their ancestors.

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I picked up the phone; it was Heather, our neighbor from up the hill.

"Your turkeys have been digging up my garden again," she said. "We have a wedding planned next month -- could you do something about keeping them off our yard?"

I was mortified. My wife and I are are now three years into our grand experiment as hobby farmers. We've been able to give free range to a barnyard full of creatures: chickens, ducks, Guinea fowl, even goats -- none of whom seem to need to roam outside our 26 acres. (The stock dogs do help keep the goats in line.)

The only beasts to get us into trouble with the neighbors, for some reason, have been adolescent turkeys. Once they mature they're not too bad -- the toms, at least, spend most of their time kicking the living daylights out of each other, the hens watching appreciatively. But young turkeys always seem to have a wild oats period, involving stealing Christmas lights, pooping on Weber grills ...

We moved this year's young turkeys into a fenced area. The neighbors' wedding was saved, and harmony reigns in ... Harmony, Pennsylvania.

Still, I miss walking with them. One of the surprises of farm fowl ownership, for us, has been that they form such complex and interesting little societies. They have a little avian metropolis going, and one or other of the hens will occasionally stop from her busy schedule to commiserate -- clucking urgently about how that other hen bit her, and that the new cockerel has been a little rough with the girls and might serve a higher calling as a frier.

I have a feeding and watering routine every morning, and they've learned its rhythms, and will follow along with me eagerly as I gather, fill, and distribute feeders full of grain. The young turkeys are really good looking birds -- these aren't those bloated, white Jabba-the-Hut turkeys that you get from the grocery stores, but sleeker heritage breeds that have more than a passing resemblance to wild turkeys.

When I first heard the line that "dinosaurs survive as today's birds," it seemed preposterous. But I get it now. Today, journal papers on dinosaurs tend to include the term "nonavian dinosaur" -- because now you have to specify that.

As I walk with our birds, I imagine myself walking with small raptors -- "dromaeosaurs" to be technical. Maybe a pack of little Buiteraptors. I'm safe only because I'm a bit too big for them to take down; doesn't hurt that they know I'm about to feed them.

I've loved dinosaurs all my life. At the age of seven, I'm told, I gave an impromptu lecture next to the Tyrannosaur in the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. And the young turkey's movements are so much like little feathered dinosaurs. You can just see how they must have looked, moving through the vegetation. In the turkeys' curiosity, their willingness to go off and get into trouble with the neighbors, you can see the teamwork, the intelligence. Don't let anybody tell you birds are dumb. People just donít pay enough attention to them.

In September, a paper in the journal Science reported the first-ever dinosaur-era feathers preserved in amber. In addition to the hair-like primitive feathers, the researchers found ones suitable for flight and even for an aquatic lifestyle -- and a number of intermediate forms. They could even see the pigmentation.

The Mesozoic era, it turns out, was colorized. And plumed.