Turkeys have purposeful, busy lives.  Unlike most humans, they are capable of surviving in the wild.  They are able to source food, to construct safe shelters, avoid predators, rear their young, and their lifespan is approximately twelve years.

The ancestors of domesticated turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are believed to have originated approximately 11 million years ago in America and Medico.  They are a gallinaceous species of birds which includes chickens, pheasants, and peacocks.

Wild turkeys thrive in a mixed habitat of open grassy areas where they forage for long distances, and woodland areas where they roost in trees at night.  They can run at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, and fly at more than 50 miles per hour, although they do not fly long distances.  They have excellent eyesight and geographical skills.  Their 5000 to 6000 feathers enable them to fly and afford protection from the elements.  The male’s feathers are a mixture of metallic, glittering iridescent copper, bronze, gold, red and green feathers, while the female’s are a more dull, brown colour that afford camouflage with her environment.

Although the turkey brain is not structurally the same as the mammalian or primate brain, scientific studies have demonstrated that they function in a very similar manner, thus dispelling the cultural myths evident in our use of terms such as ‘bird brain’, ‘turkey’, gobbledegook’ .  In her book on the avian intelligence in chickens, neuroscientist Lesley Rogers states that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates.[1] In fact, not long ago the Avian Brain Nomenclature Consortium, an international group of scientists was set up precisely to devise a more accurate description of the brains of avians[2],[3].  In Nature Neuroscience Reviews (February 2005) it was stated that there is “now overwhelming evidence that the bulk of a bird’s brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere ‘basal ganglia’ . . . rather an intricately wired mass that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human cerebral cortex.”   In terms of the intelligence of turkeys, it is important to be cognisant of the fact that investigation is occurring, for the most part, in unnatural laboratory conditions on domesticated turkeys whose development is severely compromised by their treatment at human hands.  At the outset, they are deprived of the normal developmental processes that enhance the unfolding of animal’s intelligence in co-operation with their mothers prior to birth, and thereafter in social contexts with siblings, parents and other colleagues.[4]

Turkeys are omnivores.  During their first few days of life, poults learn to catch the insects and at six weeks of age they begin to include some plant material in their diet.  In adulthood they eat a mixture of soft foods such as grapes and blackberries, and harder foods like beechnuts and acorns, along with grain (corn and oats), grasses, ferns and insects.  It has been suggested that they eat more than 600 different species of plant and animals are consumed by wild turkeys.

Adult males generally weigh between 18-22 pounds, but weights over 30 pounds have been recorded. Weights of adult females generally range between 8-12 pounds.

Such is the tenacity to life that if food is unavailable in their environment, for example because of snow cover, they can survive for up to two weeks, and are capable of losing up to 50% of their body weight before dying.

Approximately 30 turkey vocalisations are understood and documented by humans (unfortunately many of these vocalisations are studied and mimicked by hunters as they deceive and lure their innocent victims into the path of their lethal weapons) (Yates, 2005).  The most familiar sound is the gobble which can be heard by humans from a distance of one mile.  Other sounds include the lost call, kee-kee, purr, yelp, whine, putt, puff, and cluck. These calls are highly individual and turkeys have excellent recognition of the voices of those in their social groups.  Like the language of all animals, turkey vocalisations permit the communication of complex messages. They originate during the brooding phase between the mother turkey and her unhatched poult.  Turkey mothers are fiercely protective of their young and they have a repertoire of vocalisations that alert mothers to distress in their children, and enable them to alert their young to the presence of predators.[5]

Maeve, dustbathing at Eden Farm Animal Sanctuary

Like chickens turkeys love to have dust baths; these are the equivalent of human water baths or showers and in turkeys they serve the purpose of keeping them free of parasites.  They have strong social bonds, are exceptionally affectionate and love to play.

They also enjoy sun bathing; there are few more beautiful visions than that of a turkey lying in the sun raising one wing to catch its rays with an elegant fluidity of movement only approximated at by a human ballerina.

[1] Rogers LJ, The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (Wallingford, Oxon, UK:  CABI
Publishing, 1995, p217)

[2]We believe that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in which we think. For this reason, and in the light of new evidence about the function and evolution of the vertebrate brain, an international consortium of neuroscientists has reconsidered the traditional, 100-year-old terminology that is used to describe the avian cerebrum. Our current understanding of the avian brain — in particular the neocortex-like cognitive functions of the avian pallium — requires a new terminology that better reflects these functions and the homologies between avian and mammalian brains.”

[3] Jarvis et al (2005) Avian brains and a new understanding of vertebrate brain evolution.  Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6, 151-159 (February 2005)

[4] The process of ‘hatching eggs in incubators and raising poults in mechanical brooders interrupts social experiences that are the foundation for normal adult behaviour in wild turkeys including parental behaviour (Healy, in Davis, K (2001), P. 139).

[5] References:

Dickson, James G. (editor). (1992). The wild turkey: biology and management. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 463pp.

Hewitt, O. H. (editor). (1967). The wild turkey and its management. The Wildlife Society, Washington, D.C. 589pp. (Accessed 25th October 2012)

Yates, R (2004) Talking Turkey, Rituals of Dominionism, The Social Construction of Human Beings and Other Animals in Human-Nonhuman Relations.  Welfare and Rights:  A Contemporary Sociological Analysis.