To lift the lid on the lives of turkeys, naturalist Joe Hutto became a full-time “mother” to a brood of poults. What did he learn? He tells New Scientist:
You lived with wild turkeys in rural Florida for over a year. How did it all begin?
I had been experimenting with the imprinting phenomenon – in which young animals become attached to the first moving object they encounter – for years, with many types of birds and mammals. Wild turkeys are difficult to come by, so when I lucked upon some wild turkey eggs I decided: OK, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
These turkeys regarded you as their mother. Was that a lot of responsibility?
It was, because wild turkeys are precocial – they are born fully alert and ambulatory and don’t stay in the nest. They have to imprint at birth so they know who mum is, and they can’t be left alone at all. I realised that if I was going to do this project then it was going to be a 24-hour-a-day commitment, which I was willing to do.
What did being their mother mean in practice?
I had to be with them before daylight so that when they flew down from the roost their mother was there waiting, and I had to remain with them until after dark. If I tried to leave before it was completely dark they would fly down and try to follow me, and then they were left on the ground, where they were vulnerable to snakes or weasels.
Was your research scientific?
It started out as a science project but it became more than that to me. I found it impossible to avoid a very personal involvement, so a certain scientific empiricism and detachment was immediately lost in the process.
Were there any specific skills you had to teach the turkey poults?
Not at all. Their innate understanding of ecology was complete. They knew everything from birth, and the knowledge is very specific. That was one of the most surprising things about the study. From birth they knew exactly which insect they could eat and which was dangerous. I didn’t have to intervene and say: “No, no, don’t try to eat that wasp.” They knew not to eat the wasp.
Did you learn to talk “turkey”?
They sort of taught me their language. Researchers had identified 25 to 30 calls in wild turkeys that I was familiar with. But I learned that wild turkey vocabulary was much more complex than I had realised – within each of their calls were different inflexions that had specific meanings. For example, they had an alarm call for dangerous reptiles, but what I learned was that in that call there were specific inflexions that would identify a species of snake. Eventually when I heard a certain vocalisation I knew without question they had found a rattlesnake.
So turkeys are not as stupid as their reputation suggests?
No. But I think the first thing we do when we domesticate an animal is breed the fine evolutionary edge out of them. They lose that well-honed razor’s edge of survival that causes them to be clever, independent and a survivor. In some sense we breed the brains out of them.