By Winslow Umberger
Consider the turkey. Typically, when one pauses to do so, the poor turkey is either considered a dimwit capable of drowning in a rainstorm or the mainstay of a Thanksgiving Day feast. But, just as the novelist David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster and Other Essays) contemplated the lobster in his eye-opening essay about the crustacean, the turkey could use a bit of advocacy as well.
Certified Wildlife Biologist® Chris Kreh is the man for the job. Kreh is an upland game bird biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and an admitted full-on fan of the fowl. For the past four years, he has monitored the health of our wild turkey population. “It was looking grim for the bird in the 1970s as there were only 2,000 in the state,” he says. “They had been hunted close to extinction. Yet, in one of our time’s neatest conservation success stories, the wild turkey population has rebounded to more than 265,000.”
Due to careful management, hunters have plenty to stalk, but these cagey birds often outwit them. Then why are turkeys considered dumb? “I can beat them in Trivial Pursuit,” says Kreh, “so it depends on what we mean by ‘dumb’. If we think more naturally, they are quite intelligent and adept at escaping predators and adapting to their environments. They are exceptionally wary, which makes them challenging to hunt. They have extremely good eyesight and hearing and, if they could smell, we might never see them.”
Their reputation for stupidity largely stems from the bird’s propensity to stare at the sky for 30 seconds or more, even when it is pouring, which makes them appear a bit “touched in the head.” This is due to an inherited condition (tetanic torticollar spasms) that can cause turkeys to exhibit abnormal staring behavior. Turkeys also have monocular vision so they can look at two things at once, but both eyes can’t focus on the same image at the same time so they tend to tilt their heads to the side to get a better look at something. They’re definitely not dumb, but they are very social with each other and with humans.
In fact, the great naturalist Charles Darwin praised the birds’ intelligence. He cites an anecdote about American ornithologist John Audubon in The Descent of Man: “Audubon relates that he reared and tamed a wild turkey that always ran away from any strange dog. This bird escaped into the woods, and some days afterwards, Audubon saw … a wild turkey and made his dog chase it. To his astonishment, the bird did not run away, and the dog, when he came up, did not attack the bird, for they mutually recognized each other as old friends.”
Audubon also was an advocate. He observed a hen laying buds of a spicebush over her young when it was raining because “if once completely wetted, the young seldom recover.” Benjamin Franklin saw the turkey as “a bird of courage,” and today’s animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior that further speak to their intelligence.
Distilling the bird down to one or two traits—be it bird-brained or brined-bird—is rather unfair. “Whether folks realize it or not, wild turkeys are important to humans,” says Kreh. “While they are not a keystone species, anything we do for their habitat greatly benefits other creatures. They are fun to watch and it’s neat to hear all the sounds they make, especially a gobble. It’s nice to know they are doing well these days.”
Considering that November is a time of giving thanks, consider the turkey just one more miracle of our natural world.
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization whose mission is to help injured and orphaned wildlife and the licensed wildlife rehabilitators of WNC. To learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.