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.
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.
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.
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.