Are turkeys really the dumbest animals?

Wild turkeys (Kathy Willens/AP)

Wild turkeys (Kathy Willens/AP)

Are the turkeys on your Thanksgiving dinner plates really the dumbest animals in the world?

Given that sponges and jellyfish are animals, and they don’t have as much as a single brain cell, the answer would seem to be no, but let’s just look at the the universe of animals with brains, however tiny.

In this world, it is commonly said that the domesticated turkey is the dumbest animal on the planet. This unofficial designation has resulted not only from the turkey’s widely spaced eyes and clumsy walking style that suggest it is dim-witted, but from its supposed propensity for behavior that can be fatal (which, given some human behavior, shouldn’t be the only metric here). This refers to its propensity to stare at the sky for more than half a minute at a time, even when it is pouring, an act that could, potentially, lead to drowning. As it turns out, that is an inherited condition, not an act of stupidity, and no, turkeys don’t really drown from it.

In fact, the Discovery Channel defends the turkey in this passage:

Due to an inherited condition called tetanic torticollar spasms, turkeys often stare at the sky for 30 seconds or more — even if it’s raining — giving the impression that they are “dumb.” Also, turkeys often tilt their heads because they have monocular vision. Their eyes are placed far apart, so they cannot focus both eyes on one image like humans can. To compensate, they tilt their heads to the side to get a better view. Turkeys are not dumb — instead they’re very social with each other and with humans.

Animal Planet isn’t so kind, calling them “confused,” but Benjamin Franklin called them “birds of courage” and thought the wild turkey should be the official animal of the United States, not the bald eagle. There is a difference between the wild turkey and those that are domesticated, but turkey enthusiasts (and I don’t mean those people who like them best on a plate) say that all turkeys are curious animals with individual personalities.

A number of animals are often called “dumb”, like lemmings, which people often say commit mass suicide when they migrate. They don’t; they act pretty much like many other rodents. Sheep don’t get much respect either, often less than turkeys.

Still, turkeys are no chimpanzees, which can think in some ways like human beings, use tools and change their environment, or pigs, which are known to be able to learn new skills with ease and can adapt to different environmental situations, or a number of other animals that display behavior that we can consider “smart” because they are human-like.

How do we know how smart animals are anyway? And what’s the measure? Do they have to be able to use tools to capture food or is it good enough to be brilliant at adapting to their own environments, however small? And how much of the animal behavior that we consider “smart” is nothing more than genetically wired? The answer is probably most of it.

There is a broad and growing field of study — animal cognition — that researches all aspects of animal cognition from different disciplines, including behavior, cognitive sciences, ethology and behavioral ecology. In what Scientific American called “a new frontier” in animal intelligence, researchers are finding some evidence that “some animals are capable of ‘mental time travel,’” suggesting that “they have a deeper understanding of the world around them” than humans give them credit for.

Are turkeys on the list of animals that are believed to be have the ability to learn from experience and make plans for the future?

Alas, no. They aren’t that smart.

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