About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Debunking a turkey myth

My grandpa is a farmer and he told me last year that a turkey is so stupid it will drown in the rain if he looks up. He said when it starts to rain they look up and water goes down their throats and they will drown. I told him we have wild turkeys that come by our house in Southampton and when it rains they just go under a bush. What about you? Have you heard of a turkey drowning in the rain? ~ Suffolk County, New York 
 
The idea that turkeys drown in the rain is a new to me too. I looked it up on snopes.com and found that it seems to be a common urban legend but not true. Below is an excerpt from a good article by the Oregon State University Animal Sciences department that explains more: 
 
Turkey may be top choice for the holiday feast, but the live birds don't have much of a reputation for smarts. The result, turkey has become synonymous with dumb.
Tom Savage, a poultry scientist in the Oregon State University Animal Sciences Department, is tired of all the ridicule turkeys have had to endure. The researcher has spent a lot of time with turkeys 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. "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.
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." 
 
Full Article by Author Bob Rost: "OSU animal scientist debunks dumb turkey myth." Oregon State University News, November 19, 2003. http://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/story.php?S_No=92&storyType=news 
 
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