United Poultry Concerns December 1, 2006

UPC Guest Column, “A Tale of Two Turkeys

This story appeared on Thanksgiving Day Nov 23 in the Altoona Mirror in Pa. It also ran on Nov 13 in the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn. and Nov 15 in the Eastern Shore News in Virginia. The story is one of many told in Karen Davis’s book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, cited in the Nov 20 New Yorker for its stark depiction of the modern turkey’s suffering and abuse.  More Than a Meal provides an in-depth look at the turkey under every aspect, from wild to exploited.

World-renowned bird expert, Dr. Lesley Rogers, says of this unique work of scholarship and compassionate insight, “Not only is More Than a Meal an excellent account of the history of hunting, farming, and killing of the turkey, but it is a penetrating examination of the culture of Thanksgiving.” In The Way We Eat, Peter Singer & Jim Mason recommend More Than a Meal for its “excellent research on the only native American – and unfairly maligned – farm animal.” More Than a Meal analyzes WHY the turkey is unfairly maligned, including the fake compassion of the U.S. presidential “turkey pardoning” ceremony, the pornography of turkey hunting, and the violent sexual assaults that are perpetrated against these deeply sensitive and intelligent birds.

A Tale of Two Turkeys                                                     
By Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns

Many people assume that domestic turkeys lack the native intelligence of their wild relatives. I’d like to challenge this assumption by sharing my memory of Mila and Priscilla, two turkey hens who lived with my husband and me for several years in Darnestown, Maryland.

Victims of a truck accident, Mila and Priscilla would have been dead by the time we adopted them had they not been rescued. Though roughly the same age, their personalities were very different. Mila was a gentle and pacific turkey with a watchful face. Priscilla was a moody bird with emotional burdens.

In the spring and summer, Priscilla would disappear into the woods around our house, and I would have to go look for her. Eventually I’d spy her white form nestled in thick vegetation, where she laid many clutches of eggs that, since there was no male turkey to fertilize them, never hatched. Priscilla kept trying to be a mother, and perhaps because she could not, she was irritable much of the time.

When Priscilla got into one of her angry moods, you could see her getting ready to charge my husband or me, which wasn’t pleasant. With her head pulsing colors, she glared at us with combat in her whole demeanor. What stopped her was Mila. Perking up her head at the signals, Mila would enter directly into the path between Priscilla and us, and block Priscilla’s charge. She would tread back and forth in front of Priscilla, uttering soft pleading yelps as if beseeching her to stop. Priscilla would gradually calm down.

Scientists now know that birds are intelligent, emotionally charged beings. The Austrian naturalist Konrad Lorenz helped establish this fact.  Working in the first half of the 20th century, he rejected the idea that birds are nothing but reflex machines to be studied in laboratories and subjected to rigged experiments. He studied geese and other birds in outdoor settings that allowed their abilities to be expressed. His approach to studying animal behavior is known as ethology.  

Lorenz taught that imprinting – the tendency of young ground-nesting birds like turkeys and chickens to follow their mothers as soon as they hatch – is crucial to their survival as well as evidence of their capacity for complex memory formation and retention. He also showed how specific gestures have evolved within certain animals including turkeys to stop a fight.

In his classic book King Solomon’s Ring (1952), Lorenz describes what happens when two male turkeys have been fighting and one of them wants to quit. The one who has had enough makes a “specific submissive gesture which serves to forestall the intent of the attack.” He lies down with his neck stretched out on the ground.

Daunted, “the victor behaves exactly as a wolf or dog in the same situation, that is to say, he evidently wants to peck and kick at the prostrated enemy, but simply cannot: he would if he could but he can’t! So, still in threatening attitude, he walks round and round his prostrated rival, making tentative passes at him, but leaving him untouched.”

In the case of Mila and Priscilla, the belligerent hen submitted to the peacemaker’s inhibiting signals. Information was communicated in what must have been for them a familiar, yet novel, situation involving two birds genetically programmed for “meat-type” characteristics that have supposedly been linked to a reduction in brain weight or size – crude measures of intelligence in an era dominated by the power in extremely small elements from atoms to computer chips.

When they died, my husband and I dug deep holes in the woods behind our house, burying first Mila, followed a few weeks later by her crusty companion, Priscilla. That is where they had loved to roam, forage, and sit quietly when they were alive, secure in their knowledge that we were close by.    


Karen Davis, PhD is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns (www.upc-online.org), a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books). Her essay, The Turkey in History, is in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Animals and Humans edited by Marc Bekoff and Janette Nystrom (Greenwood). More Than a Meal is available from United Poultry Concerns for $20 including shipping and from bookstores everywhere.


Karen Davis, PhD, President
United Poultry Concerns
 “A Tale of Two Turkeys”

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