Mila and Priscilla

By Karen Davis, PhD

Karen feeding Mila and Priscilla
Photo By: John McDonnell - The Washington Post

UPC President Karen Davis’ book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality has been praised by animal advocates and scientists alike. Following is an excerpt from the chapter “The Mind and Behavior of Turkeys”:

I opened this book with my introduction to turkeys a number of years ago. I would like to close this chapter with my memory of Priscilla and Mila, two white turkey hens who lived with my husband and me for several years until they died. Victims of a truck accident, they both would have been dead by the time we adopted them if they had not been rescued. Though roughly the same age, these two hens were very different from each other. Mila was a gentle and pacific turkey with an intent, watchful face. Priscilla was a moody hen with emotional burdens. Throughout the spring and summer Priscilla would disappear into the woods around our house and I would have to go look for her. Eventually I would spy her white form nestled in thick vegetation, where she laid many clutches of eggs that, since there was no male turkey to fertilize them, would never hatch. Priscilla kept trying to be a mother, and doubtless in part because she could not realize her desire to be one, she was out of temper much of the time.

When Priscilla got into one of her bad moods, you could see her getting ready to charge my husband or me, and maybe bite us, which wasn’t pleasant. With her head pulsing colors and her yelps sounding a warning, she glared at us with combat in her whole demeanor. What stopped her was Mila. Perking up her head at the signals, Mila would enter directly into the path between Priscilla and us, and block her. She would tread back and forth in front of Priscilla, uttering soft pleading yelps as if beseeching her not to charge. Priscilla would gradually calm down.

I do not know whether what I saw taking place between Mila and Priscilla has any connection to Konrad Lorenz’s description, in King Solomon’s Ring, of what happens when two male turkeys have been fighting and one of them wants to quit. According to Lorenz, the one who has had enough makes a “specific submissive gesture which serves to forestall the intent of the attack.” He lies down with his neck stretched out on the ground. At this, “the victor behaves exactly as a wolf or dog in the same situation, that is to say, he evidently wants to peck and kick at the prostrated enemy, but simply cannot: he would if he could but he can’t! So, still in threatening attitude, he walks round and round his prostrated rival, making tentative passes at him, but leaving him untouched.”

In the case of Mila and Priscilla, the belligerent hen submitted to the peacemaker’s inhibiting signals. Information was communicated, learned, used, and remembered by both hens in what must have been for them a genetically familiar, yet novel, situation. It involved two female birds derived from a background of genetic selection for “meat-type” characteristics supposedly linked to a reduction in brain weight or size – crude measures of intelligence in an era dominated by the knowledge and armed with the power of subatomic particles, genes, and nanotechnology.


More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality is the only book you can buy that looks at the turkey under every aspect from symbol to science, “food” to friend. Put this book on your holiday shopping list for your school, your library, your friends, and yourself. Send check or money order to UPC, PO Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405. $20 (includes shipping). Orders of 3 or more copies receive a $40% discount: $12 per book, shipping included. Order today!