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How to seduce a turkey: a bizarre sex experiments of the 1960s

4 min read

Two men lurking over the pen.
Meanwhile a large, male turkey walked in a circle, readying his mating dance, waiting for the right moment.
The moment arrived and, clueless and giddy, the animal excitedly fluffed his feathers and approached his object of desire: the severed head of a taxidermied, female turkey, mounted on a stick.
It was the early 1960s, and Dr. Martin Schein and Dr. Edward Hale were working hard at Pennsylvania State University to find out what makes domestic turkeys literally…interested in sex.

They began with a taxidermically prepared female turkey model and a pen of active males. Then, in order to learn what specifically gets a turkey interested in making more turkeys, the two men slowly removed parts of the turkey model, one by one: the feet, the wings, and eventually the entire body of the taxidermied turkey until the stick-mounted head and neck, held like a macabre puppet, remained.
Curious enough, the male turkeys didn’t mind so much that the female turkeys weren’t alive–in fact, they were fairly interested in balsa wood models as well. Schein and Hale decided that because turkey mating behaviors leave only the neck visible during copulation, the neck is the main stimulus, no matter where the rest of body it laid. The two were so intrigued by the success of this experiment that they repeated it with chickens in their paper “Effects of the Morphological Variations of Chicken Models on the Sexual Responses of Cocks”.
And chickens, if you’re curious, apparently prefer hen bodies to the heads.

In another similar experiment, female and male turkeys were artificially induced into an early mating phase. The scientists put turkeys of both genders in the middle of a room, and tested for their attraction to different things as a turkey head mounted on wire, a human hand, but also a small wooden block, an unlit lightbulb, or an inverted feed cup (!!!).

Interesting enough but…the reason behind all this hard work?
It can’t be chalked up merely to crazed scientific inquiry, right? Despite it may seem like a useless, bizarre experiment from the outside, there have been some logic to Martin Schein and Edward Hale’s methods.
In the wild, in the mating dance, a male turkey puffs up his chest, pulls in his neck, and highlights his fanned tail, which he slowly moves toward the female turkey’s gaze. He drags the tips of his wings on the ground between purposeful steps, as the nearby female circles him until hopefully, she sits down.
Of course, in commercial hatcheries of the 1950s and 60s, farmers and poultry scientists depended on this dance. However, they noticed that the number of hatched eggs was reduced among captive turkeys. No one was sure what caused this, though, so poultry scientists began investigating using all the means avaible at the time.
And part of the goal of those studies was likely to improve reproductive success in these animals.
At the time, the reason for the low fertility problem in turkeys was speculative: genetic, physiological, as fat turkeys have trouble getting into the right position, and hormonal issues were all listed as possible causes by Schein and Hale–but some factors, behavior and desire, had to be ruled out through analysis.
Similarly, by studying how turkey mating works, poultry scientists could learn how to alter or support different behaviors, be it through changing the animals’ environment or coaching changes through selective breeding.
In short, It seems Schein and Hale weren’t doing anything more strange in their experiments than going deep into the strange minds of turkeys.
It’s possible this sort of research will even help solve human problems of fertility and desire.
Hopefully using different methods….

Images from Web – Google Research

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