Who’s the Real Turkey Here?

Wild turkeys, at least according to hunting magazines, have a reputation for cleverness. They are considered wily prey who are difficult to find and challenging to hunt.

This reputation does not appear to be substantiated by the behavior of the wild turkeys in our neighborhood. Admittedly, these are urbanized turkeys, so maybe they can’t exactly be described as “wild.” Perhaps their once-keen minds have been dulled by soft living among people who are more likely to feed them than hunt them. Or perhaps those minds never were all that keen to begin with, and the wild turkey’s reputation has been exaggerated.

I tend to favor the latter theory. In part this conclusion is based simply on comparing the size of a turkey’s head—and therefore the presumed size of its brain—with the size of its body. In part it is based on observing the behavior of the turkeys that hang out in the neighborhood.

Yesterday, for example, as I was working in the kitchen, I noticed a single hen out in the back yard. She appeared to have strayed away from the flock. Or maybe the others had conspired to leave her behind in some fowl form of a middle-school prank. Whatever the reason, she seemed lost. She stayed in one small area of the yard for the length of time it took me to wash the dishes and clean off the counters. She would take a few tentative, high-stepping paces in one direction, then retreat to her original position, then make a small circle, then stand still for a few minutes, then look all around and start pacing again.

About half an hour later, I spotted her in the front yard. She still appeared to be fretting. If she had hands, she would have been wringing them. By that time I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. I just hope the rest of the flock came back and found her, because she certainly didn’t seem likely to ever find them.

Then there are the birds, caught trotting along the road, who respond to an approaching car by staying in the middle of the road and trying to outrun it. Of course, my opinion of such a bird’s intelligence may well be prejudiced by the fact that a trotting turkey, seen from behind, is one of the most ridiculous and undignified sights nature has to offer.

I’ve never hunted turkeys, so maybe the truly wild ones are a lot smarter than I’ve given them credit for. Or maybe it’s just that hunters have a different perspective than I do.

There is, after all, the story I heard during last spring’s turkey hunting season. It rained heavily for two days—washing out roads, flooding creeks that are usually dry, and turning fields and pastures into bogs. On the second day, a turkey hunter ended up stranded on a small island in a creek whose normal trickle of water had risen into a flood. He spent most of the day there, sodden and cold, until someone finally hauled a boat in and rescued him.

For all his soggy struggles, he didn’t end up with a turkey. The birds, wily or not, at least had enough sense to settle in somewhere out of the rain.

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