What a Turkey!

Don't Underestimate the Intelligence of this Bird

Published Jan 20th 2013 in Wildlife

“What a turkey!” People think turkeys are dumb. “Turkeys are so dumb they stand out in the rain with their beak up and open and they drown to death just standing there!” I guess I am dumber than a turkey, for I think they are downright spooky smart. I am not the only one, though, for author Joe Hutto published a fine book about raising a couple of clutches from eggs to eventual “rewilding.” He walked with them through wooded land in Florida, and they stayed in a pen he built for them

Hutto noticed that the “drove” of turkeys had favorite places they loved to spend time in, and loved so much that they would run ahead of him to get there first. Turkeys spend some time getting comfortable before settling in and enduring the mid-afternoon heat. They investigated every bit of the ground, and spend time flipping bone, turtle shell and other objects they find. Expert herpetologists, the turkeys always found many more snakes and other reptiles and amphibians than Hutto.

Rattlesnakes drew their attention the most, even as young poults. Hutto believes that turkeys are hardwired for the dangers of their world, knowing innately that certain things are deadly enemies, and that they should be looked for when out on a feeding stroll. They traveled through the landscape at a sedate pace, pausing often to circle around something found, and discussing it in low turkey purrs. Their curiousity was augmented by superior memory – certain locations where objects, food, snakes or other reptiles, were remembered for as long as Hutto accompanied them.

Turkeys had been hunted almost to extinction most of America by the turn of the century. The funds of the Pittman-Robertson bill, beginning in the depths of the Great Depression, which taxes guns and ammunition and sends the money (to this day) to state and federal programs focused on natural resources conservation. Turkeys came back to the southern Llano Estacado in the 1960s. A family friend, a rancher in Glasscock County, immediately started feeding the first flock that began roosting in hispocket forests along Mustang Draw, and allowed no turkey hunting. Even on the coldest day, he would make his rounds, feeding cattle if need be, but always feeding turkey. They came “arunning” when they heard his truck. Other landowners protected their increase as well.

Turkeys spend the night off the ground. Places like South Llano River State Park has winter roost sites of 500 or more turkeys, while other roosts are much smaller. Here in Midland County I know of three roost sites. One can be seen from the asphalt, down on Midkiff Road, where it crosses Monahans Draw. They spend the night on the highline towers, about 1500 feet from the road. The other places are hidden from the public eye, down in the pocket forests of the draws. There was a roost at I-20 and the Garden City Hiway, back when there was a forest of feral Siberian elms where a convenience store is now.

Some populations of turkey have adapted to life in small Texas towns. Balmorhea, Marfa, and Fort Stockton all have flocks that wander the streets. For the most part, Texas residents are fond of the critters. In other places where the phenomenon has occurred, people unfamiliar with livestock or even the out of doors have become completely terrified of the turkeys in the street, and their story even makes the national news from time to time.

Many West Texas ranchers have flocks of turkey that visit the ranchhouse, pens, barns, and yards.