Turkeys: Sympathy, Sensibility, and Sentience

Plus Social Dancing and Driving Off Predators

By Karen Davis, PhD, President,
United Poultry Concerns

This article was first published Nov. 19, 2019 on the Animals 24-7 website.

Collage of children with outstretched arms and turkey with wings extended in the sunset
The Great Escape!
(Beth Clifton collage)

Turkeys in the mist in Maine. Photo by Hope Cruser
Turkeys in the mist in Maine. Photo by Hope Cruser

Turkeys Express Social Sympathy

An emotional behavior in turkeys that has been said to “defy logic” is “the great wake” they will hold over a fallen companion. In one episode cited by A.W. Schorger, in The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication on page 149, the wing beat of a turkey hen who had been shot “brought a flock that stopped beside the dying bird” instead of running away as “expected.”

John Jay Audubon (1785-1851) wrote how, after he shot a female turkey sitting on a fence, the male birds responded to her cries. “I looked over the log,” he writes, “and saw about thirty fine cocks advancing rather cautiously towards the very spot where I lay concealed. They came so near that the light in their eyes could easily be perceived, when I fired one barrel, and killed three. The rest, instead of flying off, fell a strutting around their dead companions.” (Audubon, it must be mentioned, murdered thousands of birds both as models for his paintings and for sport.)

Similar behavior has been observed in turkeys on factory farms. When, as frequently happens in those places, a bird has a convulsive heart attack, three or four others will surround their dead companion and die on the spot themselves. The National Turkey Federation wants people to think that what it calls this “hysteria” proves that turkeys are not intelligent. What their behavior actually reveals is an empathetic sensibility that should awaken us to how terribly we treat them and make us stop.

Observers have marveled at “the great speed of the transplanting of sound” from one bird to another within a flock at a moment’s danger. One bird having begun gobbling, the others follow him so quickly that “it is impossible for the human ear to detect an interval” or to determine which bird started the chorus or caused it to cease (Schorger, 152).

Turkeys Dance Joyfully

In Illumination in the Flatwoods, Joe Hutto describes how his 3-month-old motherless turkeys, upon seeing him in the morning, would drop down from where they sat “softly chattering” in a tree, stretch their wings and do a little dance, “a joyful happy dance, expressing an exuberance.”

Not only do young turkeys do this. As Schorger quoted another witness:

I heard a flock of wild turkeys calling. . . . 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.

Yet another witness quoted by Schorger describes adult turkeys playing together on cold mornings:

Frequently as many as eight or ten will participate in a sort of chase during which they will run at each other, then dodge suddenly, missing a collision by inches. Sometimes they will duck through or around a patch of brush to put their companions off guard.

Turkeys in the foreground, trees in the background
Wild turkeys taking flight. (Beth Clifton photo)

 

A Mother Turkey Fights Off a Hawk

“Now I have seen the turkey hen fight with a passion that would make the eagle seem tame.”

Everette M. Prosise, in a fall letter to Virginia Tech Magazine described an awesome mother turkey fly into action to protect her poults from a hawk in rural Virginia:

I saw a turkey coming into the back field. She had about 10 babies about the size of large quail walking with her. . . . Without warming, 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 turkey 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 keen observer, we did!

References:

Joe Hutto. Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. Lyons & Burford, 1995.

Everette M. Prosise, Letter to the Editor. Virginia Tech Magazine, Fall 1999.

A W. Schorger, A.W. The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication. University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Turkey perched on a tree branch with poults under her wings
A mother turkey sheltering her poults, courtesy of United Poultry Concerns