Thanksgiving week began with Joe Biden performing the annual tradition of pardoning a pair of turkeys. The two birds, Chocolate and Chip, were raised by the National Turkey Federation’s chairman, Ronnie Parker, in North Carolina. As part of his presidential duties, Biden chose Chocolate as the official National Thanksgiving Turkey. Both broad-breasted white turkeys will return to live in their home state.
The turkey pardon began in George H.W. Bush’s administration, and it’s been followed by all presidents since then. Clearly, people like it! But how might the turkeys themselves—positive as it may for them to avoid ending up on our plates—feel about all the attention?
I reached out to Mauricio Papini, a professor of comparative neuroscience at Texas Christian University, to find out. His interest lies in studying anxiety and frustration that different species of animals feel, and he has extensively researched avian behavior, including how they experience fear. He responded to my questions via email; our exchange has been lightly edited for clarity.
Niranjana Rajalakshmi: President Biden pardoned two turkeys yesterday, with the National Thanksgiving Turkey Chocolate on a decorated table, and Chip, the other pardoned turkey, walking around the president as he was addressing the crowd. What would the emotional state of turkeys be at an event like this?
Mauricio Papini: They are likely under stress from the proximity of unfamiliar people, especially if they are handled in some way. Manipulation may induce a fear response involving lack of movement that might be mistakenly interpreted as the animal being calm. This is called tonic immobility, and it is a fear response.
In this White House pardon event, lots of attention is directed toward one or two turkeys. Do they get scared?
Fear seems to be a universal emotion among vertebrates, present already in fish. Everything indicates that birds have the capacity to behave in a way consistent with this emotion.
How could one describe the emotional/social relationship they share with humans, in general? Are they very used to human activity and behavior?
Turkeys can develop strong bonds with other turkeys and also with humans. Being used to human presence would be an individual characteristic dependent on the early experience of the animal.
I think most people would assume turkeys are not particularly smart. Are they really that weak, cognitively speaking? Or is it just a misconception?
Probably a misconception. Like all birds, turkeys have a relatively large brain, comparable to that of a mammal of equal body size, and likely about ten times (or more) the size of a reptile’s of equal body size. So, there is no reason to anticipate that they would be weak from a cognitive perspective.
Does a turkey have any sense that it’s going to be part of the Thanksgiving meal, or know when it is about to be slaughtered?
I would not think so, but I cannot be sure. If they did, it would be something quite general, a sense of anxiety without a specific target.