Smarter Than You Think

Many farm animals have a reputation for stupidity. What has surprised us are the ways this stupidity is expressed — and the ways some other animals have proven themselves to be downright smart.

Turkeys, for example (at least the domesticated variety), deservedly have a reputation for being dumb. The common example given is that, during a rainstorm, turkeys will look up at the raindrops and then drown. I have never personally seen this happen, nor have I spoken with anyone who has seen it happen. That could be because most turkeys are raised indoors, and therefore never come in contact with rain. However, even when we had free-ranging turkeys, they always had enough sense to seek shelter when it rained. None of them would stand around getting wet, and I certainly never saw one looking up at the raindrops.

Okay, so they don’t drown in the rain. But are they stupid in some other way? You betcha. When raising young poultry, the crumbled feed goes in a feeder…and that feeder goes in their pen. But as the birds grow, they need more than what will fit in the original feeder. When I find myself filling the feeder too frequently, I switch to a larger one. Want to guess what has happened with every single batch of young turkeys we’ve raised? They do not recognize the feed as feed when it is in a different kind of feeder — even though the feed is clearly visible and is exactly the same feed. One batch of turkeys actually fled in fear when I inserted the new feeder, and cowered in a far corner for hours. This morning, when I switched to a larger feeder, the reaction wasn’t quite as extreme — but still, none of the turkey poults would even approach the new pan.

Contrast this behavior to that of our sheep, another animal with a reputation for brainlessness. I can’t speak for commercial meat breeds, but our Icelandics are pretty sharp. As our pasture isn’t yet tightly fenced, I can only let them out to graze when I can keep an eye on them. This morning, I decided to let them graze in the high grass while I mowed another section; that other section we’ve been keeping relatively low, and have been bagging the clippings to feed to the sheep. The gate opened, and all the sheep stampeded down the hill to the rich, long-grass section of the pasture. Meanwhile, I went to work with the lawn mower.

I filled the bag, stopped the mower to empty it, and then went back to work. A moment later, Dot, the flock’s leader ewe, realized that I must have emptied the clippings into a feeder in their paddock by the barn (that’s what I always do, and she’s quite observant). Dot broke from the flock, ran up the hill, and began feasting on clippings. Can’t blame her: it’s a whole lot easier than working the pasture. As I continued mowing, and began filling a wheelbarrow with batches of clippings, the rest of the flock became aware of Dot’s absence. One of them called to her with a “Baaaaah.” Dot called back with her own “Baaaaah.” The ewe ran up the hill and joined Dot at in the paddock…and it didn’t take long for the rest of the flock to catch on. Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog ran alongside to ensure they didn’t bolt for the hay field, but the flock didn’t need any help to find the paddock.

Fortunately, I’d been working quickly, and now had nearly the whole wheelbarrow filled. I dumped the full load into their two big feeders, and the flock swarmed to eat. But something interesting then happened: the lambs, getting crowded by the adults, ran back out through the still-open gate and went to work on the long grass at the edge of the pasture. I waited and watched them for several minutes, just making close observations of each animal and making sure none of them was looking sickly or lethargic.

This photo captures the scene: feasting lambs in the foreground, feasting adults in the distance…and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog in the middle, having the time of his life being a part of making it happen.

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