Pea Brain

Shortly after I began what I can only describe as a hopeless addiction for hunting turkeys, I heard from someone who should know about such things, that a turkey's brain is only about the size of a pea. Having already been out-smarted by several gobblers, I just assumed that the wildlife biologist who made the statement must have had too much Wild Turkey bourbon to drink.

But as I progressed as a turkey hunter, eventually hunting them in 17 different states (so far) I learned that the biologist was right. When it comes to brain power a wild turkey just does not have much to work with. If you could somehow measure intelligence in the birds and animals which we hunt, the turkey would rank near the bottom. But when it comes to keen senses of hearing and vision, the wild turkey is up near the top. It has often been said that if a wild turkey had a sense of smell like a whitetail deer, we would only very rarely kill one. I would agree with that.

Gary Clancy

Gary Clancy

When it comes to eyesight, the wild turkey was not short-changed. With its dark eyes protruding from each side of that homely head, a turkey can see about 300 degrees without ever swiveling its head. Its vision is also color sensitive. Wild turkeys have made companies named Realtree and Mossy Oak a lot of money. But what really gets us hunters, or at least this hunter, is how quickly a wild turkey keys in on any movement. Try to move your gun when the gobbler is staring you down and my money is on the gobbler every time. It has been my experience that only a mature coyote can match the turkey in this department. That is why being able to sit stone still is a necessary discipline for anyone hoping to be consistently successful on wild turkeys. That eyesight is also why portable blinds have become so popular with turkey hunters. Sit comfortably in a blind and you can eat sandwiches, drink coffee, read a book, switch calls, and even scratch an itch, all without fear of being nailed by a sharp-eyed old gobbler.


A wild turkey hears every bit as well as it sees. That has always surprised me, given that a turkey's ears do not even stick out on the side of their heads like yours and mine. All a turkey has for ears are small holes on each side of its head. So with ears like that, how can a gobbler hear a hen yelp from a half-mile away? How is it that a bird without any obvious ears, can easily hear another turkey scratching in the leaves for acorns on the other side of a wide valley? I do not have answers to those questions. But I can tell you that being quiet is as important as is sitting still. Turkeys just don't miss much.

But even with impeccable hearing and eyesight, a wild turkey would not be near the challenge it is, if not for the fact that a wild turkey is pretty much scared of its own shadow. Wild turkeys are nervous critters. Jumpy as a hooker in church describes them quite well. With that kind of genetic make-up, it is little wonder that a turkey will run or fly at the first hint of danger, no questions asked.

A turkey, unlike a whitetail deer, does not wait to confirm what it heard or saw before fleeing. A turkey, devoid of all curiosity, simply heads for parts unknown. And it does not take much. The high-pitched squeal of a barbed wire fence or the rattling of a gate chain will do it. So will the slamming of a car door or the mechanical sound a pump or semi-auto makes when you cycle a round into the chamber. Worst of all is the human voice. I've hunted with a few guys who just could not keep their mouths shut. I've never hunted with any of them twice.

A turkey does not need a big brain. As it is, only about one-third of us who hunt turkeys this spring will eventually wrap our tags around the scaly leg of a gobbler. The other two thirds will be left wondering how a bird with a brain the size of a pea managed to win again.

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