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Turkeys: Brighter than you Might Believe

Why turkeys don’t deserve their underwhelming reputation

· Thanksgiving,Animal Intelligence,Turkey

Look up the word “turkey” in a standard English dictionary, and you’ll most likely find two different definitions. One refers to Meleagris gallopavo, a type of domesticated American poultry. The other is a slang definition, referring to a person who is naive, stupid, inept, or of little appeal.

Poor turkey. What did the bird do to earn such a sad association? After all, it wasn’t always known as dim. Historically, turkeys were known as clever and cunning birds, notorious for eluding hunters. Their ability to climb trees and their excellent vision aided them in avoiding the wrong end of the rifle. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily indicate intelligence -- more like good luck and an evolutionary advantage. Regardless, Benjamin Franklin called turkeys more “respectable” than bald eagles.

Great American Hen @ Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Most experts agree that birds in general are brighter than we give them credit for, and there’s some evidence to back them up. Ornithologists all over the world are intrigued by bird intelligence, and have developed some simple IQ tests to objectively evaluate it. These challenges test various skills, including problem solving, comparative intelligence, and tool use. While corvids (like crows, ravens, and magpies) are relatively well-known to be brilliant birds, turkeys may not be too far behind.

How, then, did the turkey come to be associated with ineptitude in the first place? According to Oregon State University poultry scientist Tom Savage, the turkey’s reputation as a laughable bird may be based largely on our interactions with domesticated turkeys which are raised for food. These turkeys are bred to be “meatier,” and are much heavier than their wild relations. As such, they tend to look pretty comical when they run, and even moreso when they attempt to fly but can’t manage to get off the ground. Wild turkeys, believe it or not, are quite powerful flyers -- albeit over short distances.

Of course, turkeys probably care very little what we think of them; they’re delicious all the same. What’s on your holiday dinner table? It’s too late now to perform an IQ test. Enjoy your dinner!


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