On morning bushwalks lately, I’ve been watching a scrub turkey scratching at a huge mound of leaves. Those who know Alectura lathami would tell me this one’s a male, pointing to the ‘wattle’, the scarf of floppy yellow skin on its neck. Inside my turkey’s mound are two dozen or so eggs, deposited by any one of six or seven females. My guy will use heat sensors in his beak to check the temperature of the mound, removing and replacing leaves to maintain the ideal incubation temperature of 32 to 33 degrees centigrade.
Now in case you’re thinking my turkey’s some kind of claws-on dad, the females who deposit up to 150 eggs in his mound each breeding season are not necessarily among the six or seven he’s mated with. Free-lovin’ bird that he is, he’s taking care of someone else’s eggs, while (doe he ever ponder?) other male turkeys are taking care of his eggs. Turkeys – on mounds in back yards and forests all over Brisbane and coastal Queensland – may in fact be a higher life form, and we just haven’t learned to talk turkey yet.
And here’s the crowning achievement. Once the eggs hatch, the tiny turkeys, which take upwards of 36 hours to crawl out of the mound, are on their own. Neither turkey mother nor turkey father gives a fig. There’s no attachment turkey parenting, no carefully managed terrible turkey twos, no separation anxiety, not a Clark sandal for their turkey feet, nor a skerrick of yogurt for their turkey tastebuds. They’re alone in a turkey world. And alone, they learn to fly within just a few hours of hatching.
As birds go, my favourite has always been the royal albatross. I visited a colony on the southern end of New Zealand years ago. I love their fidelity; they pick a mate for life. I love their focus; each pair produces just one chick every two years. But most of all I love their faith, believing that if as parents they give no less than everything, protecting their tiny chick 24/7 from weasels, starving themselves almost to perishing by regurgitating all their fish and prawns to feed their baby, if they do all this, one day their chick will fly.
As a parent, I suspect I’m at the albatross end, believing I should meet my child’s every need and protect him from all harm. I’ve probably squawked self-righteously at coffee mornings about my haphazardly attached, accidental co-sleeping approach, my toddler-tender attitude, and my discipline without rewards, punishment and, well, discipline. I rarely live up to the ideal parent in my head, and I feel fairly constantly guilty.
But I’m starting to understand I might have been a better mother by watching the scrub turkey. Scrub turkeys are resilient, facing feral cats, pigs and goannas. The adult male builds his mound wherever he likes, often against odds. Just ask my friend who had a turkey build and rebuild outside her front door for a whole season, September to January, creating a barricade that barred the door, day in day out. Compare this with the albatross, so sensitive to small environmental changes that the New Zealand colony all but fled last decade. Turkeys are everywhere; albatross are rare. And turkeys are happy; albatross end up in sad poems.
Should we let our children face the feral cats and pigs of this world and learn, as turkeys do, how to flap their wings ridiculously and self-discover flight? Is that our job? Or should we stuff them full of ideology like fish? I don’t know.
In the interests of full disclosure, my rosy picture of the independent turklet above doesn’t include the fact that the mortality rate among chicks is high; only one in 200 survives to adulthood. And albatross eventually do fly. The chick gets so fat on all those prawns and fish, eventually he weighs twice as much as an adult bird. For weeks, he waddles round the colony, flapping his featherless wings, ordering his parents about and generally making a nuisance of himself, and then one day, he falls off the cliff and flight happens. That’s why albatross breed on cliffs, so that their babies can fall off the cliff and flight will happen.
One of my friends tells me that Melanie Klein’s idea of good-enough mothering is vast enough to support a whole range of approaches to parenting. I might be too much albatross, you might be too much turkey, but in the end, it seems, so long as they survive us, our birds will fly.