Imagine a visitor from another planet arrived here tomorrow and was introduced to all the game of North America. A turkey would make a bad first impression.
Their oversized bodies mounted on tiny sticks for legs make them look like a walking coyote snack. To top it off, they have some mutant features that appear to have been designed by a cruel creator, like their hideous snood and repulsive waddle.
If you told this foreign visitor that turkeys are one of America’s favorite game animals, they’d laugh at the nonsensical statement. If you then told them that they’re one of the most difficult game to hunt, he’d roar even louder.
Anyone who remembers their first turkey hunt can relate to that arrogance. These wild birds are one of the hardest to pursue, and it’s all thanks to the biology that defines them. Their eyes, ears, feathers, legs and brain are ideal for eluding predators—especially humans.
Give these qualities to a spandex-clad man, and you’d have yourself a pretty damn good superhero. Let me explain.
Turkeys have some of the finest eyesight in the animal kingdom, a reputation they’ve had for a long time. J.D. Caton perfectly sums up their vision with a folky passage from his 1869 entry in “The American Naturalist,” where he states: “It is a saying among old hunters that it [a turkey] can detect the human eye looking through a knot-hole from the inside of a hollow tree.”
Modern day literature agrees, and Scientific American states that turkey’s eyesight is three times greater than a human with 20/20. In addition to their incredible visual acuity, turkeys have a field of view of 270 degrees. This is impressive on its own, but when you consider how a turkey strategically bobs its head and rotates its neck, it’s almost constantly taking in what’s going on a full 360 degrees around it.
Most birds see in color, boasting one of “the most complex retina of any vertebrate,” according to a 2001 journal from Elsevier Science. Turkeys are no exception, relying heavily on color vision to find mates and detect predators. They’re able to do this by having seven types of photoreceptors and six types of cones. For comparison, humans only have four types of photoreceptors and three single cones.
One of the cones that turkeys possess has spectral sensitivity to wavelengths near 400 nanometers, which falls in the UV light range. This extended view of color allows them to pick up things that we can’t, like the phosphates in laundry detergent that brighten our clothes. The result can be a bright blue glow around hunters who aren’t mindful of their camouflage washing habits.
Turkeys really struggle to see at night, though. Their lack of low-light sight is why it’s so imperative that turkey hunters are set up early. However, this doesn’t mean that you can wander too close to the roost in the dark, since they still have a great sense of hearing.
“Their hearing supplements vision by attracting attention to the source of sound,” Bob Eriksen, a retired turkey biologist, told the National Wild Turkey Federation.
This means that a turkey’s first line of defense is their sight, while their ears aid in their elusiveness. This second-fiddle sense is obvious to even uneducated observers, who would notice their lack of pinna, which is the external part of the ear that we often associate with mammals. The purpose of a pinna is to funnel and concentrate sound waves, something that turkeys struggle to do.
According to Dr. Jacquie Jacob from the University of Kentucky, the rest of their ear biology is fairly similar to a human’s. However, birds also have a columella, which speeds up the vibrations to the part of the brain that recognizes sound. This quick progression means that birds literally hear faster than us. While we hear sounds in bytes about 1/20 of a second long, birds discriminate up to 1/200 of a second. That gives turkeys have the ability to hear shorter notes, where one note to us equals ten notes to them.
All that points to why we fawn at great turkey calls and callers. Your yelps might sound spot on to you, but the masterful ears of a tom tell him otherwise.
If a turkey learns through visual or auditory cues that something isn’t right, it’s likely to leap into flight. Helping them defy gravity is their pneumatic skeleton and strong muscles, along with their brilliant feathers.
The main feature of that advantage are called the flight feathers, which turkeys are sort of famous for in the world of ornithology. Their flight feather recognition comes from the fact that they have one of the lowest wing loading scores, while being one of the heaviest flight birds in North America.
Wing loading is body mass (g) divided by wing area (cm squared), which is one of the best indicators of how a bird lives, according to The University of Waikato of New Zealand. A turkey’s wing loading score is .96, which is about as low as it can go while still maintaining the ability to fly. If wild turkeys were any heavier, or had smaller wings, they’d resemble the flightless domesticated turkeys that are easily picked off by predators.
While flying may look like a real chore for turkeys, they’re actually quite good at it. They’re capable of going over a mile at a time by alternating wingbeats and gliding. They still have their limitations, though, and can only do continuous wingbeats for a couple hundred yards. Once they gain altitude, the distance they travel hardly matters as they’re capable of reaching speeds up to 50 mph.
However, don’t get too caught up on the flight feathers, as adult turkeys have more than 5,000 other feathers that cover their body, according to a turkey management journal from 1946. Those thousands fall into functional categories like body covering, insulation, waterproofing, flight, sensory organ protection, display, and recognition.
Turkeys maintain their many feathers through practices like dusting. Dusting is an alternative to bathing where water resources are limited. When a turkey dusts, it’s working dirt into its plumage with the goal of getting rid of excess oil. This keeps their feathers in top condition, while secondarily giving them a duller camouflage that blends in better in the dense woods.
It’s in those dense woods where turkeys can struggle to gain flight. If they attempt to do so, they risk damaging one of their 30 valuable flight feathers and handicapping themselves in future situations. Instead, a turkey can opt for using its legs for a getaway, which is a nice alternative when you check the stats.
Wild turkeys have been documented running up to 25 mph; that’s only 3 mph slower than where Usain Bolt was clocked during his gold medal-winning performance for the 100-meter dash in the 2016 Olympics.
Similar to fast land birds, like ostriches and emus, a turkey has long legs with the majority of its thigh muscle mass packed closely to the body. This allows them to swing their lightweight legs faster, giving them a longer and faster step—unlike humans, who have knees and ankles that are quiet far away from the rest of their body.
At the center of it all, though, is the turkey’s brain. They’ve basically been dealt the genetic lottery for a prey species, making it easier for them to get away with having a walnut-sized control center. Size isn’t everything, though.
Turkeys have a terrible reputation for being a dumb animal. We often hear of them starring at the sky for extended periods of time, even in the pouring rain. This is a condition called tetanic torticollar spasms, which causes turkeys to throw their heads back and pause all action. However, this is only found among certain breeds of white domesticated turkeys, and has never been observed in the wild.
With that nasty stigma out of the way, we need to give them credit for being quite intelligent. One of the best ways to defend their smarts is to look at their language. According to biologists, wild turkeys have 29 unique vocalizations. A truly dumb animal wouldn’t have the need or ability to produce such a complex vocabulary, ranging from tree yelps to lost yelps, cackles to clucks, or purrs to putts.
The turkey’s conservation success story also gets them intelligence marks. At one point, there were only about 30,000 wild turkeys left in North America, which is less than the populations of some of today’s endangered animals, like African elephants and orangutans. Today, more than 7 million wild turkey inhabit North America.
Much of this triumph is thanks to the turkey’s ability to adapt, which is evident from reintroduction programs in the mid-20th century. According to the NWTF, stockings of 30,000 turkeys at 968 sites resulted in 808 established populations. That’s a ridiculously successful turnaround, aided by the intelligence of humans and wild turkeys alike.
“If turkeys could smell, you’d never kill one.”
That’s what my brother told me after numerous failures in my first year of chasing toms. He’s not all that wrong.
Turkeys have a very weak palate thanks to their lack of taste buds. While some are present, they’re not like those of a human. Instead, turkeys are limited to the simple tastes, like salt, sweet, acid, and bitter.
Similar things can be said for their sense of smell. Smells are interpreted by the olfactory lobes in the forepart of the brain. In a turkey, these are very small and underdeveloped, leading biologists to believe that their ability to smell is almost nonexistent. Field observations support this, as studies have been done where moth balls placed near piles of corn didn’t deter the turkeys from feasting.
So, be thankful for those few taste buds and tiny olfactory lobes. Maybe I’ll pick up the habit of smoking and start eating sardines in the ground blind just to celebrate their missing sense. It’s the only kryptonite to these otherwise perfect butterball superheroes.
Feature image vie Matt Hansen.