United Poultry Concerns December 4, 2003

Turkeys: much smarter than you think

OSU poultry scientist gets the word out on Thanksgiving's most underappreciated bird

By Aaron Hougham
Barometer Staff Writer

Call someone a lemming, sheep or turkey and there's a good chance their feelings will be hurt.


As everyone knows, these animals have been lumped together because they share a commonly observed trait: stupidity.

Not so fast, says Tom Savage, poultry scientist and animal science professor at Oregon State University.

With many students celebrating Thanksgiving this weekend, Savage sees the perfect opportunity to get the truth out about turkey intelligence.

As a nationally known researcher, he is doing what he can to battle against turkey stereotypes.

Every year around this time, Savage makes an extra effort to correct the misconceptions about this underrated bird.

He's had enough of seeing turkeys take the brunt of public misunderstanding.

One simply has to open the paper to see the caricatures and turkey disrespect displayed in popular media.

"They have no idea what they are talking about," Savage contends.

He said that one popular misconception is that turkeys are so stupid they will stare at rain until they drown.

He and his colleagues searched for an answer to this phenomenon.

In the early 1990s they discovered a genetic condition called tetanic torticollar spasms. This condition causes some birds to act abnormally, sometimes cocking their heads and starting at the sky for 30 seconds or more.

"It's an example of how a misunderstood animal behavior becomes identified as proof that the animal is extremely lacking in intelligence," Savage said in a recent press release.

To understand the true turkey potential, Savage recommends looking to its wild ancestors.

Unlike the turkeys purchased at Safeway, these turkeys could fly and had a keen ability to blend in with surroundings to escape predation.

"How many hunters come home with a wild turkey?" Savage asked.

Indeed, the awkward appearance and customary turkey-waddle most often attributed to turkeys' feeble-mindedness cannot be blamed on the bird.

Rather, these strange behaviors are the result of domestication and selective breeding to create meaty, heavy birds.

Providing another example of their intelligence, Savage had an illustration most college students could relate to.

"If you throw an apple to a group of turkeys, they'll play with it together," he said. "Kind of like football."

Savage asks, "If turkeys are so dumb, then why do they socialize like that?"

In the 1990s, Oregon State ended what had been a 50-year relationship with the bird. Since the 1940s, free-range turkeys had been raised and studied across from the current day OSU Dairy farm.

"We used to have turkeys all over," Savage said. "It was beautiful."

Aaron Hougham is a staff writer for The Daily Barometer. He can be reached at baro.campus@studentmedia.orst.edu.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

Home | What's New? | News Releases | Action Alerts | PoultryPress | Resources | Merchandise | Links | E-mail