Thanksgiving IQ test: Ranking turkeys’ so-called brainpower

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman November 26, 2013 06:10
Smart end of the scale

Smart end of the scale

Yes, but how intelligent are they?

It’s a fair question, but one that went unanswered in my lengthy discourse on wild turkeys last week. With Thanksgiving looming and humankind traditionally disinclined to eat animals that rate higher on the IQ chart, it’s time to address it.

The answer? It depends on who you ask.

“Voices of Compassion,” an outfit which opposes hunting wild turkeys or anything else, predictably concludes that these birds “are intelligent animals who, just like the dogs and cats in our homes, are playful individuals with unique personalities.”

Naturalist and painter John J. Audubon, in fact, wrote that a wild turkey he had reared and tamed grew to recognize and become friends with his dog – whose intelligence he didn’t rate.

Other pros: Turkeys don’t merely gobble; they have a large vocabulary expressed by 20 distinct calls, including yelps, clucks, purrs, putts and cackles. They know their flock-mates by voice and looks. They recognize geographical features of ranges that can sometimes reach 1,000 acres. (Don’t ask me how anyone figured this out).

Naturalist Joe Hutto raised 14 wild turkeys from hatchlings, spent two years alone in the Florida swamps with his flock, then produced a PBS documentary on the adventure. “By every measure of intelligence, in their environment and in their world, they are without question much more intelligent than I was,” Hutto concludes.

But if you spend two years in a swamp with a bunch of turkeys, how smart can you be?

Then there’s Tom Savage, an Oregon State poultry scientist who each holiday season rises to the intellectual defense of turkeys. “A smart animal with personality and character,” he preaches.

Then comes his dinner-table caveat: “I am an advocate for turkeys,” Savage says in an OSU press release. “Except on Thanksgiving.”

“Wild turkeys have some life skills,” concedes Jim Maddox, a retired state wildlife biologist who worked for decades in Tuolumne County. But he stops short of conferring Mensa membership on the breed.

Grounds for rejection? Consider tom turkey behavior toward wooden decoys designed to lure them in. “Some toms will fight with or try to mount decoys,” says the state hunting guide. “Others will strut for hours around a fake hen.”

“I’ve seen gobblers just beat the snot out of decoys,” laughs Maddox.

Way down on the dumb scale

Way down on the dumb scale

The behavior of human males, however, just might undermine this argument. How many of us guys, for instance, have “strutted for hours” around real or imagined female quarry? Or have tried to beat the snot out of an imagined or fake rival?

Then come those ubiquitous “Top 10 Smartest Animals” lists. All include chimps, dolphins, elephants, parrots, pigs, rats and octopi. Some add crows, squirrels, cats, raccoons, or even ants and spiders. Wild turkeys are on none of them.

Dumb animal lists? Although completely unscientific, there are plenty online. And, yes, joining sponges, worms, snails, lemmings and goldfish on many of those lists are turkeys. Humans, however, are also regulars on the dumb-and-dumber lists.

The IQ verdict?

If you’re truly uncomfortable about eating any animal whose intelligence may be in the same mental solar system as your dog’s (or yours), choose domestic turkeys – which by most accounts make their wild brethren look like neurosurgeons.

Better yet, play it safe and vegetarian.

More wild turkey trivia:

Unwelcome tourists: They can fly at 55 mph and run at 18, but if doing so takes them into Yosemite National Park, turkeys may be on borrowed time. As a non-native species, the birds are not welcome. In 2004, after a tom and a few hens were spotted in the park, a shoot-on-sight order was issued and a shotgun-wielding ranger eliminated the 25-pound gobbler and two hens.

Although wild turkey populations are mounting to the west, Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said the birds have not been a park problem since. “We had a turkey sighting at Mirror Lake a few months ago, but never found it,” she says.

On par with gobblers

On par with gobblers?


Have you shot yours? Your photo, that is. Since Chapter 1 of the turkey saga appeared, we’ve had a few contributions, including hunter Ray Emerald’s shot of a 50-bird flock off Algerine Road and Friends and Neighbors writer Chace Anderson’s portrait of a defiant tom perched on his pickup truck.

Have a prize wild turkey photo of your own? Contribute it to our holiday collection.

Finally, a promise: The next turkeys I write about will be of the human variety – which of course won’t be a whole lot smarter than the strutting gobblers I’ve dealt with this month.

The author (IQ, no comment)

The author (IQ, no comment)


Chris Bateman, 67, is a journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun. Contact him at or comment below.

 Copyright 2013, Friends and Neighbors Magazine 



Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman November 26, 2013 06:10
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