Turkey Facts: What You Don't Know About These Birds

It's clear what the dominant males get: more success with the ladies than solo males. One reason seems to be that the subordinates drive off the competition: Dr. Krakauer has seen them stop displaying to chase away other males.

It's also possible that these group displays are more impressive to females, Dr. Krakauer says: "These guys could be like backup singers that add to the show."

As for the backup singers, Dr. Koenig persuaded Dr. Krakauer, then a graduate student, to test an old theory that the groups of males were brothers. This turned out to be true, which makes sense in evolutionary terms: Genes shared by the subordinate males are getting passed on by the male who gets to mate.

Turkey Conflict and Conservation

Not all turkey social life is so nurturing and cooperative. They also have dominance hierarchies within their flocks. And if they come across another flock, they may square off in a huge battle.

"They have something that looks like street fighting between flocks of turkeys," Dr. Krakauer says. "The males go fight the males, and the females fight the females. There's usually lots of chasing around and pushing and shoving."

Benjamin Franklin was also right that turkeys won't hesitate to attack a human, and we're seeing a lot of this these days — perhaps, ironically, as a side effect of our successful conservation efforts.

Turkeys were hunted almost to extinction by the beginning of the 20th century, but reintroduction efforts that began in the 1940s have been very successful — so much so that turkeys have started to move out of the woods and into the suburbs looking for more living space. They're not always the best of neighbors, causing traffic accidents, attacking the mailman and sometimes crashing right through windows into people's homes.

But even turkey troubles show that they're not as dumb as rumor has it. The ability to move into different habitats shows they're flexible, often taken as a sign of intelligence. And both cooperating and negotiating dominance with each other takes brains as well, as Dr. Krakauer says: "having a social life with dozens of other birds and knowing your place and navigating that world." They have to be able to recognize and keep track of who's who: who's related, who's above and who's below.

Not bad for a bird many of us think of as a medium for stuffing and gravy.


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