How Smart was Your Thanksgiving Dinner Before it Became Dinner?


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Many of us will be eating turkey and ham this Thursday during our national tribute to gluttony. But before we begin devouring sloppy portions of holiday meats, I thought it might be interesting to find out a bit about the intelligence of the beasts on our plates.

First, the turkey. Generally considered cranially vacant even for a bird—the turkey wasn’t always such a buffoon.  The wild turkey was historically considered a rather shrewd critter, difficult to fool with standard hunting ploys and surprisingly agile. Did you know, for example, that wild turkeys can climb trees?  And if you throw an apple to a group of wild turkeys they’ll play with it like a football, according to Oregon State University poultry scientist Tom Savage.

We’ve all heard that Ben Franklin was so enamored with the wild turkey that he thought it should have been named the national bird instead of the bald eagle. He reasoned that the turkey embodied the resilience and street smarts of the new Americans (unlike the austere, detached eagle that seems more French). Back then, the turkey had class and enjoyed a level of respect rare among fowl.   

But then we started domesticating them, and every bit of the turkey’s appealing attributes were drained out like so much broth. My favorite remark about domesticated turkeys is that they’ll stare at the rain until they drown. Apparently that’s only partly true; due to a genetic disorder, some turkeys will cock their heads upwards for extended periods of time. If you see a turkey doing this in a rainstorm, it’s tempting to think that the idiot will stay there until it’s pickled, but the neck spasm short-circuits after a few minutes and the bird returns to doing whatever it was doing before it froze (which, in all likelihood, wasn’t much smarter than staring at the rain).

Domestication turned the turkey into walking meat.  But the pig is a different story altogether.  The portly pink pig is widely considered the smartest domesticated animal in the world—which wouldn’t be saying much if all the other animals were as smart as turkeys, but pigs compare favorably even to trained chimps.

My favorite example of this is an experiment in which pigs were trained to move the cursor on a video screen with their snouts. When the pigs used the cursors again, they were able to distinguish between the scribbles they already knew, and the scribbles they were seeing for the first time. The pigs learned this skill as fast as chimpanzees.

In another experiment, pigs were taught to jump over, sit by, or retrieve various items. Three years later, they could distinguish between the items and remembered what to do. That’s about as smart as an average three-year old child.

And consider this – pigs rapidly learn how to outwit other sneaky pigs. A pig will follow another pig to food and wait until the very last second before grabbing it away (not unlike sniping in an EBay auction), but the fooled pig will learn from this and the next time will use a strategy to throw off the other pig, like leading it somewhere there isn’t food and then running off to dinner with a smug squeal.

As you’ll recall from Orwell’s classic book, the pigs ran “Animal Farm” using dogs to do their vicious bidding. That’s about right. Pigs are independently minded problem solvers, while dogs are stronger on loyalty. Dogs are certainly no dummies in the animal world, but pigs are shockingly crafty. You can probably fool your dog as long as you’re holding a treat, but pigs learn and remember. Some animals are more equal than others. 

So in the dicey game of domestication, the turkey fared poorly, while the pig retained its smarts.  If you feel better knowing that you’re eating a genuinely dense animal, stick with the turkey. If you don’t mind eating an animal that can play video games, pile on the ham. But either way, don’t forget the cranberry sauce. Cheers!


Suite The Intelligent Pig

Penn State University Research

United Poultry Concerns: Turkeys, Much Smarter than You Think 

Wikipedia: Animal Cognition


4 thoughts on “How Smart was Your Thanksgiving Dinner Before it Became Dinner?

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