Turkeys and Helicopters

This week Rachel and I were herding turkeys out of their pasture onto the farm lane when we came under attack by helicopters. Or at least that’s how the turkeys would tell the story.

We were working with the flock and had them all moving in the same general direction when four slow-moving, evenly-spaced sorties of Chinooks crossed overhead. Everything had to stop as the entire flock froze in place and began calling out their distinct “danger” gobble to alert one another to the hazard. Each helicopter received the same attention.

The strange aspect to turkey behavior is that they never seem to learn that helicopters aren’t dangerous. We’ve had an extraordinary amount of helicopter air traffic this summer because the electrical utility companies have been upgrading power lines near the farm, and much of the work has been conducted by linemen dangling from harnesses below the aircraft. But even with all that exposure to choppers, each one gets the same “stop everything” reaction.

Of course, helicopters aren’t the only thing to provoke this reaction. A cow calling her calf in a distant field will illicit a gobble. As will crow or blue jay squawks. And any percussive noise works. Years ago Allie and I were pounding in steel fence posts near the turkeys. Every whack of the sledge hammer brought out a synchronized chorus of gobbles. We thought it would stop after ten or twenty pings from the hammer, but it just kept going. Ping, gobble-gobble. Ping, gobble-gobble. Ping, gobble-gobble.

The strange thing about this behavior is that it doesn’t seem to align with the real threats to turkeys. In our environment, horned owls are the most lethal predators they face. And although owls will hoot at night, I’ve spent nights watching for owl attacks and I can attest that owls attack silently. Eagles don’t make much noise, and the raptors that do call are usually not big enough to take on a thirty pound turkey anyway. The more significant ground predators, like coyotes, foxes, and bobcats all are capable of making noise, but I’ve never heard the turkey go through all the gobbling exercises when they hear yelping. So I’m stuck wondering where this behavior fits into their adaptive strategy for living in the wild.

By the way, two seasons back I made a video of the call and response format of turkey gobbles. Most of my attempts at videos only have tens or a few hundred views, but the turkey gobble video stands out strikingly with over one hundred thousand views, so I guess that’s the content people like. In my very small world, that counts as a viral success. Here’s that one in case you missed it the first time around.

6 thoughts on “Turkeys and Helicopters”

    1. It might be about the group size. Wild turkeys around here travel in flocks of between 10 to 40 birds, but of course in wild groups they aren’t uniform in age either, so age might also be a factor. Most of the birds are spring poults being brought up by the hens, and then groups of 5-10 toms and jakes usually hang out on their own, with a few toms living what appear to be solitary lives.

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