Turkey Facts: What You Don’t Know About These Birds
Published on November 11, 2013
It's that time of year when we all love the turkey — but on our dinner table. As an animal, the turkey gets little respect, supposedly so dumb that it'll drown itself if it looks up while it's raining. That's a myth — and your Thanksgiving dinner's wild relations are probably a lot smarter than you think.
The turkey hasn't always been so maligned. It's not quite true that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as our national bird. But he did compare the turkey favorably to the bird that was chosen.
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly," he wrote. "Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district."
But the turkey, Franklin said, is a "much more respectable Bird… He is besides, though a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
The people who spend the most time trying to outsmart turkeys nowadays would likely agree with Franklin.
"I think if you talk to a turkey hunter, he or she would definitely tell you they're not stupid," says Alan Krakauer, Ph.D., of the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California at Davis.
Partly this is because humans aren't the only ones who find turkeys tasty. "They have to deal with a lot of predators, and they're fairly sophisticated about that in many ways," Dr. Krakauer says. "There are predators they know they can fly away from, so they won't waste a lot of energy flying away from a coyote unless it looks really interested in eating them. But they definitely take a golden eagle very seriously and will head for cover."
Turkey communication is also more than just "gobble gobble." "There are over 30 different sounds that they make," Dr. Krakauer explains. Although no one has studied the calls in detail, there are at least a few different categories, including calls announcing predators, contact calls and the calls of males advertising themselves.
The Science of Turkey Family Life
Turkeys have some interesting cooperative behaviors. "The females have what are called crèches," Dr. Krakauer says. "That's where multiple moms join their broods together and have joint child care."
The males also have a communal courtship behavior that's extremely rare in birds: Small groups of male turkeys will display together to the females.
This posed a bit of a scientific puzzle, according to Walt Koenig, Ph.D., of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. "It's only the dominant male who gets most of the mating," he says. "What are these subordinate males getting out of it?"
It's clear what the dominant males get: more success with the ladies than solo males. One reason seems to be that the subordinates drive off the competition: Dr. Krakauer has seen them stop displaying to chase away other males.
It's also possible that these group displays are more impressive to females, Dr. Krakauer says: "These guys could be like backup singers that add to the show."
As for the backup singers, Dr. Koenig persuaded Dr. Krakauer, then a graduate student, to test an old theory that the groups of males were brothers. This turned out to be true, which makes sense in evolutionary terms: Genes shared by the subordinate males are getting passed on by the male who gets to mate.
Turkey Conflict and Conservation
Not all turkey social life is so nurturing and cooperative. They also have dominance hierarchies within their flocks. And if they come across another flock, they may square off in a huge battle.
"They have something that looks like street fighting between flocks of turkeys," Dr. Krakauer says. "The males go fight the males, and the females fight the females. There's usually lots of chasing around and pushing and shoving."
Benjamin Franklin was also right that turkeys won't hesitate to attack a human, and we're seeing a lot of this these days — perhaps, ironically, as a side effect of our successful conservation efforts.
Turkeys were hunted almost to extinction by the beginning of the 20th century, but reintroduction efforts that began in the 1940s have been very successful — so much so that turkeys have started to move out of the woods and into the suburbs looking for more living space. They're not always the best of neighbors, causing traffic accidents, attacking the mailman and sometimes crashing right through windows into people's homes.
But even turkey troubles show that they're not as dumb as rumor has it. The ability to move into different habitats shows they're flexible, often taken as a sign of intelligence. And both cooperating and negotiating dominance with each other takes brains as well, as Dr. Krakauer says: "having a social life with dozens of other birds and knowing your place and navigating that world." They have to be able to recognize and keep track of who's who: who's related, who's above and who's below.
Not bad for a bird many of us think of as a medium for stuffing and gravy.