Turkey Aptitude – How Smart Are They?

Posted on May 15, 2012



“Some men suppose, probably judging by the domestic variety, that wild turkeys are dumb, and they don’t understand why others consider hunting them such fine sport. It’s because of its difficulty and uncertainty. It offers a challenge that only those naturally gifted with woods sense and great patience can master.”      

                                                                        – Archibald Rutledge


Arguably, the wild turkey is not classified as being terribly bright. It would never make the Late Show’s host, David Letterman’s top ten list for smartest fowl. And despite Ben Franklin’s valiant efforts to adopt the turkey as America’s symbolic bird, the bald eagle ultimately and prodigiously won out. After all, would we have wanted people around the world actually referring to us as a bunch of ‘turkeys?’ I don’t think so.

But for those of us that pursue this bird as ‘fine sport,’ we know differently now don’t we? We’ve experienced the frustrations, been done out of a shot by a slick maneuver, lived through mornings of silence despite our best renditions of ‘I just called to say I love you’ by Stevie Wonder, and been sabotaged by birds that broke every rule in the little book of ‘How turkeys are supposed to respond.’

Tom Kelly writes in his classic, Tenth Legion, “For a good many years I held, believed and expounded the theory that turkeys could burrow underground, like moles. I said this then, and believed it when I said it, because they had done things to me that I felt no creature could ever do on top of the ground. He would necessarily have had to use the part under the surface to do it in. In recent years it has come home to me very strongly that I was wrong. They can do it on top of the ground, and worse than that, it is not even necessary for them to extend themselves particularly to do it. They can do it as a sideline, they can do it on their way to attend to more important business. It is particularly humiliating to know that they have this capability and that besides doing what they have already done, there are God knows how many other things they are going to do to me yet, without even bothering to concentrate on it. What dreadful outrages lurk in the repertoire, if they ever bothered to give their whole concentration to fooling me, boggles the imagination.”

Sound like a stupid bird to you? Granted, the cranium of a turkey houses a brain relative to the size of a walnut, but isn’t it amazing, despite the size of grey matter compacted within, how often they make the right decision? Or, flipping the coin, how often we make bad choices in our effort to capture him.

Like all of nature’s children, turkeys possess certain attributes that when used to the extent of their design serve to protect and preserve their ‘fan.’ Eyesight that is sharp enough to detect movement from great distances, hearing that is keener than either of my dogs, and the ability to fly. As a deer tracker I’m really happy that flying deer are really only a myth; not sure how well I’d do attempting to follow a whitetail that could actually soar.

Often, as humans we judge a person’s intellect by what they know, how much knowledge they possess, how book smart they may be, how well they can score on a test; but does that really identify intelligence? Here’s a test, you’ve fallen through a frozen body of water and are currently clinging precipitously to the shards of broken ice. The water you are now submerged in registers a temperature below 40-degrees. Each moment that ticks by brings you closer and closer to a fatal end. Who would you choose in this hypothetical situation to come to your rescue, someone that can, in detail describe the peril you are now in, all of the possibilities that could potentially happen, but hasn’t a clue how to physically assist, or someone that has the immediate savvy to quickly act by throwing you a life line, yank you from what is sure to be a watery grave and initiate treatment for hypothermia? None of us has to have a very high IQ in order to make the right choice here. The point I’m attempting drive home is that we all, humans and animals alike, share a chief goal of, at all costs, preserving our life. And short of some unforeseen accident, something that would be most difficult to prepare for, is the end by which we go about our business. In a turkey’s world his defense mechanisms serve to keep from being eaten. The unforeseen accident he may encounter comes at the business end of a 12-gauge during turkey season.

Understandably, no one wants to be bested by a creature which has a walnut sized brain; that’s humbling. Yet, count the number of days afield you traipse out of the turkey woods without a feathered creature hanging over your shoulder. Tom Kelly aptly writes,

“We believe that we are instinctively born knowing the wilderness, that we are nowhere so comfortable as in the forest primeval, and that we are quite fully capable of hunting and killing with dispatch anything from hummingbirds to elephants, even if we choose not to do it. To admit ignorance, to admit even by inference, that there is a species of game bird of animal that flies, walks, or crawls across the face of the North American continent that we are unable to hunt skillfully and kill effortlessly, somehow runs against our grain. Not only does it offend us to think it, we flatly refuse to admit that it could ever happen.”

How smart are turkeys? Smart enough for me to realize that if I’m to kill a turkey I’m going to have to work for it, walk to it and make every attempt to fool him into believing that I’m something that I’m not. What fun would it be otherwise?

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