Man Spends a Year Living as a Turkey to Prove They’re Not Dumb

We’ve all heard the popular myth about turkeys being so stupid that they will look up at the rain and drown. Well, naturalist Joe Hutto’s year-long experiment living as a turkey proved it wrong, along with any other myths that suggest the stupidity of the bird. On the contrary, he says that turkeys are born with an “innate understanding of ecology” and have a complex vocabulary to communicate with each other.

Hutto, an ethologist who lives in Florida, has always been interested in the phenomenon of imprinting – in which young birds and animals identify the first moving object they encounter as a mother or a caregiver. So when a local farmer left a bowl-full of wild turkey eggs at Hutto’s doorstep, it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He began his scientific experiment by choosing to imprint himself as the mother turkey. Hutto placed the eggs in an incubator and waited for them to hatch. When the cracks began to appear, he had to act fast, since imprinting occurs only in the first few moments after hatching. He placed his face close to the eggs and when the first poult came out, there was immediate eye-contact and the establishment of a bond. “Something very unambiguous happened in that moment,” he said

Photo © PBS

Once the young turkeys identified him as their mom, his responsibilities began. He could never leave them alone for an instant, it was a “24-hour-a-day commitment.” He went to them before daylight so they could find their mother when they flew down from their roost. And he stayed with them until it was dark, otherwise they would fly down and follow him which wasn’t safe for the young birds. Hutto says that he didn’t really have to teach the turkeys much. They were pretty instinctive about many things, like which insects they could eat and the ones that were poisonous. While he had familiarized himself with around 25-30 wild turkey calls before hand, he realized that “within each of their calls were different inflexions that had specific meanings.”

Photo © PBS

In an interview with New Scientist, Hutto said that while the whole project started off as a scientific experiment, it quickly came to mean much more to him. “I found it impossible to avoid a very personal involvement, so a certain scientific empiricism and detachment was immediately lost in the process,” he said. In the process, he learned that turkeys were clever and independent creatures that lose their “well-honed razor’s edge of survival” due to domestication.


You can watch a 50 minute film of Joe Hutto living as a turkey, on PBS.

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