When someone says he or she wants to “talk turkey” with you, it usually means that you’re in for a frank, straightforward and serious discussion. But if you’re with Joe Hutto, he literally means speaking the language of the birds.
A naturalist and wildlife artist who lives in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, Joe is the author of the 1995 book Illumination in the Flatwoods, the story of his year spent studying a flock of wild turkeys in the loblolly pinewoods of Florida. The experience changed his life and inspired the later 2011 BBC television episode titled “My Life as a Turkey.”
The TV program, which aired on PBS in the United States, tells the story of how Joe raised 16 wild turkeys from eggs to fully fledged birds. Told through Joe’s diary entries, the program imparts remarkable insight into the complexities of wild turkey behavior and reveals that these birds are far from stupid.
In fact, Joe thinks turkeys are so intelligent that he set out to learn their vocabulary, which, he says, demonstrates how great their brainpower is.
Much like prairie dogs, turkeys have specific vocalizations for specific animals. Joe was able to identify more than 30 distinct turkey calls, and within each of them are inflections with very different meanings. For example, depending on the pitch of a “purr,” it can signify anything from simply “Here I am; where are you?” to “Catastrophe is on the way!” Another cry might mean, “You’re out of sight, and you need to come closer.” On seeing a hawk, a turkey will emit a low, nasal whine, causing any other turkeys around to be very quiet and still.
Joe also learned that individual turkeys have unique voices, which they use to recognize each other.
Watch the short video below, titled Learning the Language of Turkeys, from BBC Earth. You’ll get to meet Joe and his brood. And while his affectionate portrait of wild turkeys may not convince us to stop calling each other “turkeys” when we want to label people as foolish or inept, it just might give us pause the next time we’re tempted to pronounce an inaccurate insult.
Perhaps, too, you’ll want to practice a bit of talking turkey yourself.
Make this Thanksgiving a grateful one for the wonderful and wise creatures that share the Earth with us,