28 November 2018

“Bird Notes” – My Response to Hearing Turkeys’ Intelligence Disparaged on National Public Radio

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

On Sunday morning November 18, I was listening to the classical music station, WHRO, in Norfolk, VA, when a feature called Bird Notes, hosted by WHRO’s Program Director Dwight Davis (no relation to me), came on and, wouldn’t you know, the bird being featured that day was the turkey. Sure enough, the familiar refrain was soon sounded: “Turkeys are not high up on the intelligence scale.”

I sent a quick email to Mr. Davis, who replied he’d get back to me after the holiday, and on Monday, he did. He wrote at some length, saying he did not mean his characterization of turkeys as a “slight”; simply that “By implying that turkeys were of low intelligence, I was merely trying to be objective and place them in some sort of continuum.”

He went on to say that there is not a lot of “hard evidence about bird intelligence to refer to; indeed, it is hard to define what ‘bird intelligence’ means,” citing a paucity of experimental evidence of avian intelligence while conceding that the survival of turkeys for millennia, despite being hunted, could, he supposed, “be construed as a mark of intelligence.”

People, he said, who are around animals, especially domesticated ones, including turkeys, and begin to feel an attachment to them, may on that basis “consider them smart because we’ve adapted to them and they to us” and we can relate to those animals. Thus, he said, “we give them human-like characteristics.”

Mr. Davis concluded that he “did not mean to be disparaging to turkeys,” but was “merely offering a general, bird-oriented feature for Thanksgiving” and would “tread more thoughtfully and lightly” the next time he discusses turkeys.

To this, I wrote back:

Thank you very much for your response to my email last week expressing my shock and dismay at hearing you tell listeners of “Bird Notes” that turkeys “are not high up on the intelligence scale,” or words to that effect. This characterization of turkeys is not “objective” at all. Avian intelligence does not fit a vertical scale from “lowest” to “highest.” Ranking the diversity of individual animals and species on an IQ scale has no more to do with the actual cognitive complexity and evolution of other species than ranking human individuals, ethnicities, etc., has.

I must underscore that representing turkeys and chickens as cognitively inferior to song birds, raptors, or whoever is being invoked for comparison, perpetuates false and demeaning stereotypes with no relevance to any of these birds. It’s time that we quit representing birds who have the particular misfortunate of being classed as “food” animals as “dumb,” “dirty,” and so on. There is no “continuum” of avian or any other animal intelligence in nature. E.g., who’s “smarter”? Parrots or porcupines? Dogs or ducks? Cats or kangaroos? To characterize turkeys as ‘low” on some arbitrarily-contrived kindergarten-level scale of measurement certainly is a slight. As if these birds weren’t already burdened with the misery and degradation our species inflicts on them every day, all day for “food” nobody needs or has any right to have.

We now realize that ranking human ethnicities, races, sexes, and the like is ridiculous and unjust. The same applies to the ranking of other animals, and it’s time for us to stop this nonsense.

Here is a PDF of my book More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. Chapter 8, “The Mind and Behavior of Turkeys,” examines the false stereotypes versus what we now know and can reasonably surmise about turkeys and chickens - creatures who could never live successfully in the natural world if they were not super alert, attentive, subjectively aware, able to make quick decisions and do a thousand other things required by the rigors of daily life. Chickens evolved in the tropical forests of Asia, as I’m sure you know. Chickens are intelligent, emotional birds. Their wild relatives continue to occupy these forests that our species is destroying for “beef,” “chicken,” and factory-farmed animal feed.

So thank you again very much for taking the time to respond to my concerns. Please do not denigrate our fellow creatures any more by circulating misperceptions and misrepresentations of them. We have an ethical obligation to be just and accurate in our portrayals of those who cannot defend themselves against us and who are not in themselves the creatures we thoughtlessly or intentionally trash and make fun of.

Karen Davis, PhD, President
United Poultry Concerns

Karen Davis, PhD is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization and sanctuary for chickens in Virginia that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. Karen is the author of More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, and The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. She has been inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation.

Four turkeys gathered in the shade of a tree Photo by Beth Lily Redwood