OSU animal scientist debunks dumb turkey myth

November 19, 2003
Turkeys in a pen. Photo by: Dave King
Turkeys in a pen. Photo by: Dave King

CORVALLIS - The great American turkey is probably never more popular than over the Thanksgiving holiday. During the rest of the year this much-maligned bird doesn't get a shred of respect.

Why? Turkey may be top choice for the holiday feast, but the live birds don't have much of a reputation for smarts. The result—the turkey has become synonymous with dumb.

Look up turkey in the dictionary and you'll see the term defined as slang for a naive, stupid or inept person; a dud or loser. The idea that turkey equals stupid is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Certainly you've heard that old lament of the workplace: "How can I soar with eagles with I work with turkeys?"

Tom Savage, a poultry scientist in the Oregon State University Animal Sciences Department, is tired of all the ridicule turkeys have had to endure. A nationally known poultry geneticist, Savage has studied turkeys, chickens and other birds throughout his 30-year career and has conducted numerous studies on ways to improve turkey production and meat quality.

The researcher has spent a lot of time with turkeys - the winged kind - and feels strongly that the use of the turkey as a metaphor for stupidity is unfair and inaccurate.

"I've always viewed turkeys as smart animals with personality and character, and keen awareness of their surroundings," said Savage. "The dumb tag simply doesn't fit."

Backing up his claim, Savage referred to the story about how turkeys are so stupid that they sometimes look up at clouds overhead while it's raining and keep staring skyward until they drown.

Although he has never heard of this actually happening, Savage noted that some turkeys do cock their heads back, stare up at the sky, and hold that position for up to a minute or more.

But the behavior is a genetically-caused nervous disorder called tetanic torticollar spasms, he said. Savage studied and identified the condition in the early 1990s.

"It's an example of how a misunderstood animal behavior becomes identified as proof that the animal is extremely lacking in intelligence," Savage said.

He admits that some of the turkey's unique characteristics probably do encourage people to think turkeys are stupid.

For example, domestic turkeys tend to look awkward, particularly when they are running. Savage counters that this is because they have been bred to be heavy, meaty birds, much larger than their sleeker wild cousins.

Also, domestic turkeys often run and flap their wings, trying to fly but failing to get airborne because they are simply too massive to get off the ground.

People who observe this behavior may conclude that the turkey is too dumb to realize that it is incapable of flight.

Savage responds that wild turkeys are very good fliers so it's not unusual that domesticated turkeys instinctively try to fly. But, of course they can't fly very well, or far, because they're too heavy, he said.

A realist, Savage acknowledges that improving the turkey's reputation for intelligence is an uphill battle. Just the same, he insists on doing what he can to debunk the myth of the dumb turkey.

"I'm an advocate for turkeys," he said, "except on Thanksgiving."

Author: Bob Rost
Source: Tom Savage