Turkeys: Who are They?

By Karen Davis, PhD

This article appears in the November 2006 issue of Satya magazine (www.satyamag.com).

Photo by: John Sheally
Karen Davis and Florence
Karen and Florence (2000-2006)

My first encounter with turkeys took place at Farm Sanctuary where I worked as a volunteer one summer. There was a flock of about twenty white turkey hens and two bronze turkeys named Milton and Doris. One thing that impressed me then, and has stayed in my mind ever since, was how the turkeys’ voices, their yelps, floated about the place in an infinitely plaintive refrain. Another was how one or more of the female turkeys would suddenly sit down beside me in the midst of my work, with her wings stiff and her head held high, awaiting my attention.

Doris wandered about the farmyard all day by herself like an eternal embodiment of a “lost call,” the call of a lost young turkey for her mother. Milton would follow us around on his gouty legs and swollen feet. His dark eyes watched us from inside a bristling armor of iridescent brown feathers and pendant, heavily wrinkled pouches of folded head and facial skin of varying colors reflecting emotions that made me think of a body with its soul imprisoned deep inside.

Milton plodded behind people, stopping when they stopped, resuming his ponderous tread as they did. He would often stand before you, or appear unexpectedly at your back – manifesting himself almost scarily at times – decked out in his full array, his tail in a fabulous wheel, his wing ends dragging stiffly. Like the hens in their starched white wing skirts, crouched exactly where you were shoveling the muck, he awaited your response.

Photo by Lois Lifshutz
Karen Davis and Florence

To understand the complex suffering of turkeys raised for food, one should begin by knowing that in nature, young turkeys stay close to their mothers for four or five months after hatching. Turkeys raised for food, however, never see their mothers. Biologist William M. Healy has described the importance of bonding between young turkeys and their mothers for normal social development. He notes that much of what biologists know about wild turkey intelligence is based on work with domestic turkeys. He defends turkeys from the charge of stupidity by observing that genetic manipulation of turkeys for “such gross breast development that few adult males can even walk, let alone breed” creates demeaning stereotypes.

Poultry specialist Dr. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph, Ontario, states unequivocally that “turkeys possess marked intelligence [as] revealed by such behavioral indices as their complex social relationships, and their many different methods of communicating with each other, both visual and vocal.” Likewise, Oregon State University poultry science professor, Dr. Tom Savage, says of the turkey disrespect displayed in the popular media: “They have no idea what they are talking about.”

I know from experience that turkeys who have lived their entire lives in industry settings can roam the woods and find their way back to the yard as soon as they get to our sanctuary. Despite the terrible things that have been done to their bodies – the gruesome genetics and mutilation of their toes and beaks at the hatchery – factory farm turkeys are alert to their surroundings and one another. Several times I remember seeing our peacemaking turkey Mila stop her testy companion Priscilla from charging a person in an angry mood by inserting herself between Priscilla and her target. And I have seen how well turkeys get along with people and with other birds at our sanctuary. Though for reasons I never figured out, our turkey Florence, who died last March after living with us for seven happy years, would occasionally get mad at one of the ducks, snood her nose down at him, and chase him off.

While researching my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, I learned other things about turkeys. For instance, they “transplant” sound from one bird to another within the flock at a moment’s danger. They also dance. In Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey, naturalist Joe Hutto describes how one morning in August, his three-month-old turkeys, upon seeing him, dropped from their roosting limbs where they had sat “softly chattering” in the dawn, “stretched their wings and did their strange little dance, a joyful, happy dance, expressing an exuberance.”

And a witness who chanced upon an evening dance of adult birds wrote:

I heard a flock of wild turkeys calling. They were not calling strayed members of the flock. They were just having a twilight frolic before going to roost. They kept dashing at one another in mock anger, stridently calling all the while, almost playing leapfrog in their antics. Their notes were bold and clear. For about five minutes they played on the brown pine-straw floor of the forest, then as if at a signal, they assumed a sudden stealth and stole off in the glimmering shadows.
Photo by Lois Lifshutz
Karen Davis and Florence

An emotional behavior described in turkeys is “the great wake” they will hold over a fallen companion. In The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication, A.W. Schorger cites an episode in which the wing beats of a turkey hen who had been shot “brought a flock that stopped beside the dying bird.” Similar behavior has been observed in turkeys on factory farms when a bird goes into a convulsive heart attack, “It is not uncommon to go into a bird house and see the afflicted bird lying dead, surrounded by three or four other birds that died because of the hysteria caused,” wrote a poultry researcher. Such “hysteria” reveals a sensibility in turkeys that should awaken us to how badly we treat them and make us stop.

Turkeys have a mysterious empathy with one another under duress, and they can be fierce fighters as well. A turkey mother will fight vigorously to protect her young, as described by an observer of the following drama in rural Virginia:

I saw a turkey coming into the back field. She had about 10 babies the size of large quail walking with her. Without warning, the hen took off vertically as if she had stepped on a mine. About 20 feet off the ground, she intercepted and attacked a hawk that was coming in for a baby. The hen hit the hawk with her feet first and with her back almost parallel to the ground. The hawk flew toward the back of the field with the hen in pursuit; it turned back towards the babies, and the hen hit it again. They both fell about 10 feet and were fighting with their feet, until the hawk headed for the tree line and kept going. The hen returned to her babies. When they went back into the pines, the babies were very close to their mother’s feet. Wish you could have seen it.

Thanks to this eyewitness, we did see it, and let us remember that turkeys need our help and they deserve our respect. Give all the thanks you want but, I hear them saying, “please don’t gobble me.”

What Can I Do?
  • Between April and July, 2006, PETA investigators documented horrific cruelty to turkeys at the Butterball slaughter plant in Ozark, Arkansas. Butterball turkeys are hung upside down, shocked in painful electrified water that paralyzes and does Not stun them. Their necks are then partially slit and, dead or alive, they are thrown into scalding water. Adding to their misery, workers were taped stomping on live turkeys, slamming them against walls, exploding their skulls and popping out their spines with sadistic glee. This is the culture of slaughter. Please don’t support it. Order our vegan cookbook Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless “Poultry” Potpourri for delicious, easy recipes, and More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality for the cultural, literary, and natural history of turkeys. These books make great holiday and library gifts.