Archived Story

Minnesota turkey to receive presidential pardon [UPDATED]

Published 10:10am Thursday, November 21, 2013 Updated 12:11pm Thursday, November 21, 2013

BADGER — What does it take to be the nation’s top turkey? Turns out, it takes some pluck.

“You can kind of tell who’s the one,” said John Burkel as he walked among six toms living the dream in a small backyard training facility he built just for them on his northern Minnesota farm.

“I’d like to get him comfortable enough that he goes into full proud, where they display all the feathers and really gives you the tough guy look.”

One of Burkel’s birds will stand still, hopefully, next week on a White House table, let out a few well-timed gobbles and not interrupt or attack the president.

For that, he’ll be pardoned and spend the rest of his days at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate.

Preparing an adolescent-aged turkey with raging hormones to calmly withstand the hubbub of a White House ceremony takes some work.

Burkel and his five kids spent a lot of time with the turkeys the past few weeks. They fired camera strobes. They’ve played music ranging from Vivaldi to John Mayer to rap.

Sometimes, he said, he’ll catch the turkeys gobbling along with the music.

“I think it really comes down to how they respond to you and will they let you handle them and getting them used to sitting on top of the table and will they stand still,” said Burkel, who leads the National Turkey Federation this year and will be part of the turkey entourage at the White House.

While the Thanksgiving holiday dates back to Abraham Lincoln, the tradition of a farmer presenting a turkey to the president began with Harry Truman in 1947. The official pardon became part of the tradition in 1989.

The tradition, though, brings with it unpredictability.

Most of the turkeys raised by farmers are hens. But the male or ‘tom’ turkey is chosen for the pardoning ceremony because it’s more colorful and looks more like a traditional Thanksgiving turkey. The wrong bird can make a mess of the ceremony.

“It really is about sexual maturity,” said Burkel, referring to the turkeys. “They’re ready to… they’d love to have a hen in here, let’s put it that way. Yeah, they’re just displaying really, showing who’s the tough guy on the block.”

While the music and noise training help get the birds ready, Burkel also has a secret weapon: children.

Editor's Picks

Burris sentenced to 12 years, 6 months in prison

Michael Alan Burris, who pleaded guilty in October to second-degree involuntary murder in the 2012 shooting of his nephew, Scott Burris, was sentenced Friday afternoon ... Read more

Tree of Hope brings Christmas to the needy

Hundreds of ornaments hung on a tree in Bethlehem Lutheran Church before people in the congregation picked them out to take home over the weeks ... Read more

All aboard! Santa is coming to town [UPDATED]

Off in the distance will be the sound of a train’s horn, and as it chugs closer and closer, the crowd waiting his arrival will ... Read more

Send a veteran a card this season

Addressing the annual family Christmas cards can be a chore, but the local veterans’ home is asking everyone to add a couple names to the ... Read more