Nature Documentary Shows One Man's Journey to Becoming a Mother Hen

Nature Documentary Shows One Man's Journey to Becoming a Mother Hen

Michele Berger
Published: 11/17/2011

Jeff Palmer (who plays Joe Hutto in the documentary) walking with his turkeys. Photo: Courtesy of PBS.

“Day after day, I saw no one…except my family. It was a family like none that you know.”

So starts “My Life as a Turkey,” a documentary from the PBS series “Nature” about writer and naturalist Joe Hutto (played by Jeff Palmer) and his 18-month journey raising a group of wild turkeys in Florida’s back woods. The 50-minute program aired last night—just in time for Thanksgiving—the fifth of the 30th season of “Nature.”

For a year and a half, Hutto interacts only with the 16 birds, spending every waking hour with the turkeys he says bear no resemblance to the domesticated ones we know, even sitting in their pen until complete darkness reigns and the birds have fallen fast asleep. For Hutto, what starts as scientific inquiry quickly becomes


The story of Joe Hutto (played by Jeff Palmer) became a book, Illumination in the Flatlands. Photo: Chris Allen

intimately personal. “This experiment was going to leave science far behind,” he says. “I had no idea the extent to which I’d actually have to become a turkey.”

Become a turkey Hutto does, learning what their two-dozen vocalizations mean, running through fields with the birds chasing after their next grasshopper-filled meal (“we’d raid the fields like ancient marauding barbarians,” he recalls; check out the video below), even feeling extreme sadness that when the turkeys begin roosting in trees, he can’t join them.

Though the story’s inherently sweet, it’s at first hard to get over how seriously Hutto takes his Mother Hen role. He is, after all, a person—a man, nonetheless—becoming a parent to wild birds. But eventually, the turkeys inevitably do their heart-tugging thing, especially their huggable, lovable fuzzy versions. Then you’re hooked; it’s hard not to become smitten and to understand why Hutto did, too.

Don’t worry, “My Life as a Turkey” shouldn’t ruin Thanksgiving dinner for you. Instead, watch the heartwarming flick with your family. You’ll get Hutto’s motivation for giving so much attention to the birds he calls playful, curious, tactile, and affectionate. And hopefully, you’ll remember who and for what in your life you’re thankful.

Watch A Grasshopper Run on PBS. See more from NATURE.

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