Poultry scientist polishes turkey's foul stereotype

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2003

PORTLAND, Ore. How dumb are turkeys? They are SO DUMB that when they get hurt they don't call 911. They can't find the 11 on the dial.

(Cue the rimshot, please.)

They are SO DUMB that....


An Oregon State University poultry scientist said the turkey, whose name has become synonymous with an inept, dimwitted loser, is getting a bum rap.

While they may not be the sharpest arrows in the quiver, Tom Savage, a professor of Animal Science, said the big birds aren't really dumb.

Big, yes.

Ungainly? That, too.

But dumb? Not so much.

Savage has studied turkeys and chickens for 30 years and said it's time the birds get some respect.

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

Stories abound of how turkeys are so stupid that they sometimes look up while it's raining and keep staring skyward until they drown.

Savage said he has never heard of that really happening, but said turkeys sometimes do cock their heads and hold that position for a minute or more.

It's 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.

And he noted that the birds are a close cousin to the wild turkey, evasive birds who are cunning enough to often leave hunters frustrated and cursing.

''I've worked with the true turkeys for quite awhile and told myself I can't let this myth keep going on,'' he said.

He did concede, though, that turkeys look stupid, especially when running.

This, he said, is because they have been bred to be heavy, meaty birds, much larger than their sleeker wild cousins. It's the same reason they stay on the ground when they flap their wings.

Savage said he knows it's an uphill fight to reshape the fowls' image as anything but a big, dumb bird.

But he said he'll keep trying.

''I work with the animals, talk to them, observe them to be sure of their well-being and find out how they do when they are stressed you get attached to them,'' Savage said. ''I'm an advocate for turkeys. Except on Thanksgiving.''

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