Bird brains

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Turkeys are reputed to be so stupid that they’ll drown by looking up in a rainstorm. This seems to be a wive’s tale, but don’t go feeling any vindication on turkeys’ behalf. They apparently are so stupid that will drown in their water dish simply because they can’t figure out to lift their head out of it.

Maybe we’re just proud poultry owners, but we think our turkeys have something going on in the brains department. Not the kind of thing that gets you into Yale early admission; more like street smarts.

Smart enough to find the sunny spot

The first day we brought them home, they were on the lookout for an escape route. Now, you could argue that escaping from a warm, predator-proof brooder into a cold, predator-rich world, won’t score you an 800 on the turkey SATs, but we thought that finding the biggest hole in the chicken wire and managing to scramble through it was a notable accomplishment for a bird a week old. Our chickens never showed that much initiative.

They also seem to learn from each other. There’s a lot of turkey-see, turkey-do, whether it’s a new behavior, like jumping up on the roost bar, or something they already know how to do, like eat. If one starts, the others tend to follow suit. Sure, it’s groupthink, but that’s better than no think at all.

They’re alert, aware of what’s going on around them, and engaged with the other creatures who populate their world. When we had them in Turkey Day Camp, they’d hang out on whatever side of their enclosure was closest to the action, whether the action was us watering the garden, the chickens taking a dust bath, or the cat … well, doing what cats tend to do around small birds.

When nothing was going on, they’d peep and peep and peep, but stop immediately if they heard or saw us. Or if they got tired.

But it wasn’t until Kevin finished their new, grown-up pen that we saw their true mettle.

It took us a while to decide just how we were going to house them, but we finally settled on something significantly more permanent than what we had originally envisioned. But we knew our construction plans would be opportunistic, and it happened that opportunity presented itself in the form of cattle panels.

Cattle panels are pieces of galvanized steel fence 16 feet long and 50 inches high, with holes that are 6’x8’. There are a couple extra wires near the bottom that divide the bottommost holes in half so small things can’t escape (or enter). Cattle panels are strong and cheap – about $28. each.

The problem with fences isn’t the fencing; it’s the fenceposts. To keep fencing from falling over, fenceposts have to be big, sturdy, and sunk deep in the ground. But ask yourself: what’s big, sturdy, and already sunk deep in the ground? Trees, of course! We don’t need no stinking fenceposts. All we need are trees that are exactly sixteen feet apart.

We went in search of a spot that was clear of brush, sheltered by leaf cover, and big enough to hold four turkeys. At least, I was looking for a space big enough for four. Kevin was looking for a space big enough for eight, or even twelve.

“Twelve?” I asked.

“Turkeys are pretty easy so far,” he said.

The turkey pen, still under construction

We found a spot just off the driveway, next to where we keep our mushroom logs. A couple of rhododendrons had to be sacrificed, but it was otherwise ready to be turned into a pen.

We bought five cattle panels from Cape Cod Feed and Supply, and a scant two days later Kevin had enclosed the pen, gate and all. The treehouse that will be their nighttime roost isn’t finished yet, so they still go in the brooder at night, but we shut down Turkey Day Camp and put them in their new home during the day.

Yesterday was their first day in the pen, and they seemed to like it. They have room to run around, and they like to fly up to the platform that will be the floor of their treehouse. (They also enjoyed using it as a jumping-off point to fly over the fence until Kevin blocked their escape route.) They scratched and explored, ate leaves and bugs, and seemed curious about their new environment.

The turkeys got the idea that this was their pen and the chickens were intruders.

They weren’t the only ones. As Kevin was taking tools in and out of the pen, he left the gate open and a couple of chickens wandered in. For a while, all the birds went about their business, but then the turkeys got the idea that this was their pen and the chickens were intruders.

They went after them in a posse. They corralled them into a corner and started pecking at them.

The chickens are easily twice the size of the turkeys, and have the wisdom that presumably comes with maturity, but they didn’t even try to exert their superiority. They fled.

I didn’t witness this. Kevin told me about it afterward. But I was there when the cat went into the pen.

She wandered in like she owned the joint, and the turkeys were on her tail immediately. They didn’t seem overtly hostile, more like curious. But the four of them backed her into the same corner the chickens had ended up in, and it seemed to me that no good could come of this stand-off. If the turkeys started pecking at her, it was certainly possible that she could remember that she eats things like them, and we’d have nothing but heartbreak.

I stepped between them, and the cat made for the door.

That was four month-old turkeys, chasing a cat out of their pen. That’s pretty ballsy, I think.

What is it about Kevin and poultry?

It’s possible that we’re so impressed with our turkeys because the many stories of their stupidity had us anticipating four avian idiots. It was the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Our turkeys have turned out to be much better company than we thought they’d be, and we probably spend a little too much time hanging out in the pen watching them watching us. They come over and peck at our toes, and roost on our arms if we sit down. One hopped on Kevin’s shoulder and closely examined his ear.

It’s possible that, because our turkeys aren’t the broad-breasted kind bred for the Thanksgiving table, they’ve hung on to some of the native intelligence of their wild ancestors, but it’s also possible that stories of turkeys’ stupidity are wildly exaggerated.

The chickens haven’t given up on peaceful coexistence, and they seem to hang around the pen, taking dust baths outside the gate. The cat has extended her policy of ignoring the chickens to all poultry. We’re busy making sure our turkeys have a congenial environment, conducive to intellectual achievement.

They're scarier than they seem

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Comments

  1. Hope you don’t get so attached to your intelligent companions that you don’t want to eat them come Thanksgiving!!

  2. You make me feel a little guilty for having just one turkey. I know the little guy is lonely. I wish I had at least one companion for him. I think he’d be a more adventurous eater if we did. He has no one to imitate, no companion’s interest to take an interest in. I’m delighted to hear your turkeys faced down the chickens. Maybe I *could* try introducing the turkey to the chicken pen. He’s as tall as the girls, but much lighter. And I worry about them ganging up on him with his one blind eye. We’ll see. By the way, your Bourbon Reds look much, much darker than mine. Local variation?

  3. I think the turkeys roost on Kevin because he used to work the street and we all found out what turkeys worked there in’08. LOL (Sorry Kevin, but AIG, Goldman, etc. deserve it. I thought you changed your life to soar with eagles, yet here you are hanging with the turkeys. What’s that about?)
    I could go on and put out more really bad corny jokes, but that might interefere with laughing. Oh God, please, I hope you folks don’t take yourselves too seriously. Thank you for a bright spot, again.

    I am sadly in the group that has to avoid getting into relationships with creatures I want to eat. I would no more think of eating a pet chicken, turkey, pheasant, hog, cow or anything else I named than I would think of eating the cat. I do not eat bees, so they are safe even if nameless.

  4. I tend to agree with the native intelligence idea.

    My grandmother said that they had to put the turkeys in with the chickens so the turkeys could learn how to eat, and then they had to put marbles in the turkey feed to get them to eat. I don’t know what kind they were raising, but I somehow doubt that they were a heritage breed.

    Yours must be closer to their wilder, wilier ancestors.

  5. Fiona — We know it won’t be easy to kill them, but we’re committed to doing it. Turkeys make excellent livestock, but if we wanted pets we could probably do better.

    Kate — I’d try your turkey with the chickens. Who knows? The dynamics of inter-species poultry harmony are hard to predict. But if it doesn’t work, I wouldn’t worry. I’m not sure turkeys feel loneliness, or much of anything beyond the basics of hunger, fear, thirst, and a few others. The life your turkey has is the only one he knows, and he doesn’t know to yearn for anything different. If you start feeling sorry for him, remember that he’d be dead already if you hadn’t rescued him.

    As for color, I’m sure some variation is to be expected. Ours came from Murray McMurray.

    Greg — Kevin and I have been accused of a lot of things, but never of taking ourselves too seriously!

    As for getting into relationships with creatures we’re planning to eat, I’m sure it will make slaughter difficult. But I eat animals, and this is the best way I know to ensure the animals I eat live decently.

    Paula — I think you’re right about the breed. Our Bourbons must still have vestiges of the good sense that keep turkeys in the wild alive.

    • Kate — An addendum. It shows what an attentive poultry owner I am that I told you ours were Bourbons. They’re Standard Bronze, which would explain the color difference.

  6. I love learning about the turkeys. Kevin’s rapport with the poultry is amazing. From Wall St to Bird Whisperer. Your husband has some kinda talent!

    All poultry suffer from the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ as you so eloquently put it (this is my new favorite phrase). Probably because the observers based their opinions on commercial sized flocks, not on small groups of individuals. The behavior differences observed between large and small flocks is radically different. Behaviorists are only finding this out because of a rise in backyard poultry keeping. There’s noticeably more being written in their academic journals about this difference.

    My very basic understanding of brain development is that the more early stimulus is introduced, the more neural pathways develop, and the more scope there is for learning and mental growth. Maybe your day camp and new pen are like Montessori for Turkeys! It was probably learning to make those potholders. . .

  7. I love your writing.

  8. Jen — I can’t take credit for the “soft bigotry …” That’s Michael Gerson, speechwriter to George W. Bush. It’s genius.

    If early stimulation is what develops little turkey brains, then we’re covered. We had them outside at about 2 weeks, and now they’ve got a pen not just with a half-completed treehouse, but with all Kevin’s tools lying around for them to investigate. One of them climbed to the top rung of the ladder today, and we’re hoping they can learn to use the nail gun and finish the treehouse by themselves.

    Pat — Thanks. I don’t think I could keep doing this without the gratification of hearing that somebody enjoys it.

  9. If your turkeys evolve opposable thumbs, we’re all screwed.

  10. Such a great story! I love your chicken tales, and now a companion book about turkeys! Heaven. I never raised them, and my personal experience was a brief encounter many years ago with a huge flock of wild turkeys messing around on the Westford, MA town green. I was like the cat – and I beat it outa there.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Turkeys, like any other creatures, have a diversity of smarts. When I was a kid, my dad raised turkeys, both for our own consumption and to sell to his friends and colleagues (my job was plucking, until everybody at GE got the brilliant idea that it would be fun to pluck their own — whereupon I graduated to watching the children of the people who were Coming Out to the Country for an Authentic Farm Experience).

    Some of the turkeys were really clever. Some were dumber than a box of rocks. We had one nearly starve because it forgot how to eat (we had to literally hold its face over the feeder and make pecking motions with its head), and we had one we had to separate from the others for a while because it wouldn’t STOP eating, and it got so heavy its legs wouldn’t hold it. That was only a couple of birds, though, in the whole history of our turkey-raising years. Meanwhile, the smarter birds were hangin’ with the chickens and the other creatures on the other side of the fence to their enclosure, scratching for bugs and keeping up a running commentary. By the look of your pictures, we had the same sort — the relatively smarter ones that still bear some resemblance to the wild ones.

    It was a chicken, though, that managed to drown while leaning back and trying to figure out where the rain was coming from. Water went right down the little idiot’s gullet.

    Something to consider: For the last month or so, Dad always fed the turkeys on a diet of cracked corn. Just cracked corn, just for the last month. They were delicious. 🙂

  12. Mimi — A big turkey, bent on chasing you away, is a formidable thing. I definitely woulda run!

    Stephanie — Thanks for writing a bit about your experience with turkeys. I love that you got out of plucking duty so other kids could have their Farm Experience.

    It makes perfect sense that turkeys would run the IQ gamut. We’ve all known dumb dogs and smart dogs, dumb people and smart people, and why should poultry be any different? Since we only have four, we don’t have a representative sample, but if we do this every year I’m sure we’ll have our share of outliers. (And we’re on to the cracked corn strategy!)

    And that is the first first-hand story I’ve heard of a bird drowning in the rain. You read it here!

  13. Stephanie says:

    On the cracked corn — they were free-range, so they also had access to whatever crawlies they found outside. But what they got in their feeding dishes was the corn.

    We had relatively few weird deaths, so the ones we DID have were memorable. The odd fox making off with a duck, no big deal. A chicken drowning? On dry land? THAT’s a story.

    Probably the weirdest was the year we lost two chicks to exposure for the simple reason that one of our dogs, who was always very attentive to baby animals of any sort (he supervised all the lambings, watched the goslings and ducklings learn to swim, took care of kittens, etc.), licked the baby fluff right off ’em. Naked baby chickens couldn’t take the upstate New York weather.

    God, I want to live on a farm again!

  14. Wow, I’m impressed Tamar, that’s a great run! Good luck with your turkeys.

  15. I thought you might be amused by Mrs Beeton on the subject of Turkeys …

    “The turkey is one of the most difficult birds to rear, and its flesh is much esteemed.

    THE DISPOSITION OF THE TURKEY.—Among themselves, turkeys are extremely furious, whilst amongst other animals they are usually both weak and cowardly. The domestic cock frequently makes them keep at a distance, whilst they will rarely attack him but in a united body, when the cock is rather crushed by their weight than defeated by their prowess. The disposition of the female is in general much more gentle than that of the male. When leading forth her young to collect their food, though so large and apparently so powerful a bird, she gives them very slight protection from the attacks of any rapacious animal which may appear against them. She rather warns them of their danger than offers to defend them; yet she is extremely affectionate to her young.”

  16. Stephanie — Now there’s a new one! A dog licking off the chick fuzz so the poor things die of exposure? So far, we’ve only had one death (a chicken just keeled over), and nothing weird at all. I guess it takes years to accumulate stories like yours.

    And it’s not too late — there are farms out there, just looking for new owners.

    CS — Thanks! We’re going to need all the luck you can wish us.

    Madcat — So Mrs. Beeton wasn’t too wild about turkeys, eh? That’s not a very flattering description. So far, we only know what very young turkeys do but, as the birds grow, we’ll see how accurate she is. I loved “rather crushed by their weight than defeated by their prowess.” I know exactly how he feels.