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Do Turkeys Have a Photographic Memory About Their Roost?


A wild gobbler recognizes a predator when it sees one.

I’ve heard that turkeys have photographic memories and can spot any little change in the areas where they’re roosting. Is this true? — Cassie Turner

No. Unlike a white-tailed deer, turkeys rarely take notice of a new shooting lane or even a tent blind placed near familiar location. That’s one reason tent blinds work so well. You can place them almost anywhere, and turkeys don’t react negatively to them.

True, turkeys are very wary and intensely paranoid, but is that because of memory? Listen to Lovett Williams, one of the country’s top turkey biologists.

“To provide for what they do not have time to learn, nature provides young turkeys with a repertoire of instinctive behavior,” he wrote. “Some behavior is learned as time passes, but very little of what is learned is passed on to the next generation. Nature keeps the turkey on its genetic toes by simply removing from the gene pool those that are prone to make fatal mistakes.”

What gets a turkey’s attention? Movement, of course — and something else.

“Turkeys and other wild prey species recognize predatory behavior,” Williams wrote. “Stalking predators exhibit a similar behavior pattern. A predator spots prey, shows intent interest in it, focuses two eyes on it, approaches closer, and when within reach, strikes.  When I followed radio-tagged turkey broods, I was behaving in the predatory mode, and I was perceived accordingly. By being able to instinctively recognize predatory behavior, a turkey does not have to acquire, through eons of natural selection or personal experience, visual images of all the forms of predators it might encounter. A predator behaves as a predator, and it will be perceived as a predator regardless of what it looks like.

“In addition to recognizing predatory behavior, turkeys are instinctively cautious of certain animal forms. A snake at close range will put turkeys into near hysteria, whether or not the birds have had experience with a snake. A hawk flying overhead is recognized as danger, even by poults that never saw a hawk before. These are universal predator forms for which many prey species have evolved instinctive image recognition.”



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