"Uh-oh," said volunteer Elena Boursell, "I've got one that needs surgery."

It was an injured paper turkey, which was whisked away to a table filled with other newspaper gobblers, their minor rips needing repair in the makeshift "turkey hospital."

This can happen when thousands of reader-submitted turkeys swarm the Star Tribune for the annual "Oh, You Turkey" art contest, now in its 34th year.

More than 3,000 entries filled a small conference room earlier this month -- the piles upon piles of envelopes containing prized birds bedazzled with crayons, markers, glitter, even pretzels.

For more than a decade, Lifeworks, a nonprofit group serving people with disabilities, has helped the Star Tribune organize this endeavor.

Boursell and seven other people with disabilities worked behind the scenes to open, sort and count the turkeys.

"They all look forward to coming here," said Lifeworks service facilitator Michelle Pusari, who oversaw the turkey opening.

Each member of the Lifeworks team is extremely careful not to damage the birds, but accidents happen.

That's when the turkey hospital comes to the rescue. A designated turkey nurse (yes, there is such a thing) ensures that each bird is taped back together and ready to rejoin the flock of colorful contestants.

After the group had sorted through the mountain of entries, four students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design spent half a day judging the turkeys on their creativity and craftsmanship.

They selected these winners:

0-4: Nika McDonald, 7 months, of Minneapolis, with a vivid and bold watercolor turkey.

5-8: Alex Kaczmarek, 7, of Plymouth, with a turkey scout made of felt and other mixed media.

9-12: Chloe Balder, 10, of Maple Grove, with a rock star turkey made of mixed media.

The Star Tribune has worked with Lifeworks on various projects throughout the years, including bulk mailings, collating and stuffing envelopes.

However, this project is one of the crew's favorites, said the newspaper's marketing specialist, Kay Krhin. Some, like Boursell, even asked to be placed on turkey duty ahead of time. Krhin said the enthusiasm the group brings to the project is contagious.

"Opening each envelope is like opening a present -- you never know what you'll find inside," Krhin said. "The work day is punctuated with 'Wow, look at this one!' and 'Did you see that one?'"

One gobbler that caught Tom Belka's eye was decorated with election stickers from the Obama and Romney campaigns.

"This one is my all-time favorite," said Belka, but a few minutes later he opened another donned with colorful feathers. That one then became his favorite.

Cindy Magden, on the other hand, likes the less extravagant turkeys.

"There was one that had Vikings colors," said Magden, who was wearing a purple Vikings sweatshirt.

But there's one decoration she avoids: "Oh, great. Another glitter one," Magden joked, as she opened a gold-dusted turkey.

It's not that she doesn't appreciate its shimmering beauty, she just doesn't want to be the one who is shimmering.

Wiping specks of gold from her sweatshirt, she said: "I can't get it off."

Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028 • Twitter: @amatos12