Why Are Wild Turkeys So Aggressive?

A new video of a wild turkey chasing a Natick police cruiser begs the question.


‘Gobble gobble, I’m an asshole!’ / Turkey photo via Shutterstock

The Commonwealth’s fine public servants are under attack. Their avian assailant: Meleagris gallopavo, better known as the wild turkey.

Video surfaced last week of a Natick police officer evading one such hotheaded turkey. The officer found safety in his truck, but the bird wasn’t backing down. It chased the officer’s vehicle, pecking and screeching like a raptor from Jurassic World, albeit a lot smaller.

Poultry in Pursuit. Our Downtown Dinde has taken a fascination with looking at himself in our hubcaps. Each cruiser is being equipped with a gravy air freshener to help keep him away.

Posted by Natick Police Department on Thursday, January 7, 2016

This latest incident comes only weeks after a video hit the web showing a flock of wild turkeys aggressively trailing a Cape Cod postal employee. “Every day,” the mailman says, wielding a thin metal pole to keep the feathered fiends at bay.

These aren’t the first spats of angry birds to cause a ruckus in Massachusetts, and probably won’t be the last. But it does invite the question: Why are wild turkeys so aggressive? Here’s what we could determine:

1. They’re strict adherents to the pecking order.

Turkeys don’t start beef with humans over territory. For them, it’s all about the pecking order, and if you don’t establish dominance on that first encounter, you’re beneath the beast in its eyes.

MassWildlife explains: “Pecking order is a social hierarchy or ranking in which each bird is dominant over or ‘pecks on’ birds of lesser social status. Males and females each have their own pecking order, and same-sex flocks have their own internal pecking orders.”

2. They’re most likely tougher and faster than you.

Some wild turkeys can hit 20 mph when running at full speed, according to National Geographic. They can also rocket themselves through the air—small bursts of flight can top out at 55 mph.

Now consider that wild turkeys can have a wingspan in excess of four feet and weigh 20 pounds. It’s understandable that folks may be hesitant to establish dominance over the burly birds.

3. They are easily excited by their own reflection.

When the Natick Police posted the video last week to Facebook, they left an important clue. “Poultry in Pursuit. Our Downtown Dinde has taken a fascination with looking at himself in our hubcaps,” the message read.

Turkeys are obsessed with their reflections and are known to chase shiny objects, including hubcaps. “In spring, reflections are a big thing…They think they’re seeing another turkey and they start pecking,” Dave Scarpitti, a game biologist with the DFW, previously told Boston.

4. Their brains are hardwired to memorize the pecking order and defend its integrity.

Wild turkeys have an uncanny and somewhat scary ability to recognize our voices and appearance. They can differentiate humans from one another, a skill they use to rank us in the all-important pecking order.

From MassWildlife: “Human-imprinted turkeys (those which have formed a indelible social and mental bond with humans upon birth) recognize and respond to people by both voice and appearance. The turkeys will also assign a sex to people, based upon the bird’s perception of the human’s behavior rather than their actual sex, and behave towards that person accordingly, for an indefinite period.”

5. It takes a village to break them of their aggressive behavior.

The pole-wielding mailman in Cape Cod is pulling his weight in the fight against thug turkeys, but it’s not going to do a damn thing unless his entire neighborhood steps up and starts flexing.

MassWildlife again has some insight here: “The best defense against aggressive or persistent turkeys is to prevent the birds from becoming habituated in the first place by being bold to them. Everyone in the neighborhood must do the same; it will be ineffective if you do so only on your property… Habituated turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates.”