Animals

Turkeys Don't Actually Drown in Rainstorms

When it comes to the world's stupidest animals, turkeys are generally ranked near the top of the list. (Of course, jellyfish and sea stars don't even have brains, but who's counting?) How dumb are turkeys? They're so dumb, the story goes, that when it rains, they stare up in the sky in fascination until their mouths fill with water and they drown themselves. That classic legend is nothing more than a myth. In fact, turkeys aren't even all that stupid in the first place.

Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head

First of all, even if turkeys were that dumb, this old wives' tale doesn't make sense from the turkey's standpoint. Turkeys have monocular vision, which means that their eyes are set on opposite sides of their heads — a trait that gives them a wider field of vision in which to spot approaching predators. While you or I would look up to examine falling raindrops, turkeys would tilt their heads sideways to point one eye toward the sky.

Then how did this myth get started? Do turkeys make a habit of looking up in rainstorms? Actually, yes — if they're unlucky enough to have a specific genetic condition.

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Some turkeys have an inherited neurological disorder called tetanic torticollar spasms (TT). According to a study published in Poultry Science, the condition causes muscular spasms that make a turkey bend its neck back so far that its head rests on its back, with its beak directed toward the sky. The spasms can last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute, and can sometimes be triggered by sudden loud noises — like the thunder of a rainstorm. Even with its beak open, though, a turkey won't drown after a minute in the rain.

The question remains, though: even if turkeys aren't stupid enough to drown themselves, how stupid are they really? Less stupid than we give them credit for, that's for sure. Charles Darwin, of all people, praised their "acute powers of observation" and ability to recognize friendly dogs they'd seen before, and the naturalist Joe Hutto got particularly attached to one wild turkey he named Turkey Boy. "Each time I joined him, he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears," Hutto wrote.

Turkeys are no ravens, but they're not brain dead either. It's time to put this holiday myth to bed with the others.

To read more about the personalities of wild turkeys, check out Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season With The Wild Turkey by Joe Hutto. When you make a purchase through that link, you help to support Curiosity.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. When he returned to Spain after "discovering" the New Wold, Christopher Columbus brought along wild turkeys. 00:33

  2. "Turkey" is a shortened version of turkey fowl, a name that the birds received because they were raised by Turkish farmers. 01:03

  3. In 1614, English settlers had turkeys imported to Jamestown from England. 01:23

Written by Ashley Hamer November 13, 2017