Can a Turkey Smell? The Surprising Truth About a Turkey’s Sense of Smell

We all know that turkeys have keen eyesight and hearing but what about their sense of smell? Do turkeys actually lack a sense of smell or is there more to the story? Let’s dive into the fascinating world of turkey olfaction and uncover the truth.

The Myth of the Odorless Turkey

For years, the conventional wisdom was that turkeys have a very poor sense of smell. This belief stemmed from the observation that turkeys have relatively small olfactory bulbs, the part of the brain responsible for processing scents. However, recent research has challenged this long-held assumption.

The Science Behind the Sniff

Evolutionary biologist Danielle Whittaker, author of “The Secret Perfume of Birds,” believes that turkeys’ sense of smell may be more important than previously thought. Her research suggests that birds, including turkeys, use scent to communicate, navigate, and make critical decisions about food and mates.

Whittaker’s experiments with preen oil, a fragrant substance secreted by birds, revealed that birds can distinguish between different species, sexes, and even the size of other birds based on their scent. This suggests that turkeys may rely on smell more than we realize.

The Turkey’s Olfactory Advantage

While turkeys may not have the most powerful sense of smell in the animal kingdom, their olfactory abilities still offer several advantages. For instance, their sense of smell can help them:

  • Locate food sources: Turkeys can sniff out hidden insects, seeds, and other food items.
  • Avoid predators: Turkeys can detect the scent of predators, allowing them to take evasive action.
  • Recognize other turkeys: Turkeys can use scent to identify potential mates and rivals.
  • Navigate their environment: Turkeys may use scent to navigate familiar areas and find their way back to roosting sites.

The Bottom Line: Turkeys Can Smell, and It Matters

While turkeys may not have the most sophisticated sense of smell, it plays a significant role in their lives. Their ability to detect scents helps them survive, thrive, and interact with their environment So, the next time you encounter a turkey, remember that it’s not just relying on its eyesight and hearing – its sense of smell is also at play

Additional Insights:

  • Turkeys’ sense of smell is likely not as strong as that of humans or other animals with highly developed olfactory systems.
  • The size of the olfactory bulb is not the only factor that determines the strength of a sense of smell.
  • Further research is needed to fully understand the role of smell in turkey behavior.

The myth of the odorless turkey has been debunked. Turkeys do have a sense of smell, and it plays a vital role in their lives. As we continue to learn more about turkey olfaction, we gain a deeper appreciation for these fascinating creatures and their complex sensory world.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

(Image courtesy of Bob Humphrey) Three of a hunter’s greatest assets may be being well-camouflaged, patient, and knowledgeable about a turkey’s innate patterns and instincts. In addition to helping you blend in with your surroundings, a good camouflage will also break up your human form. It’s also helpful to have a background the break up or conceal your silhouette.

One of my more important lessons came while trolling down a power-line right-of-way one morning. Although I knew the woods on either side were frequently home to birds, it was one of my regular haunts, and they appeared to have suddenly developed lockjaw. I decided to take a run-and-gun strategy, hiking down the swath and stopping at key points to attempt to hit a bird with my box call. Still, my efforts were proving largely ineffective.

I stopped again as I got closer to the top of a rise, unlimbered my go-to “boat paddle,” and was ready to let out a series of loud yells when I looked down my back trail. I saw what initially appeared to be a contractor’s trash bag blowing in the breeze a good quarter of a mile behind me. I had stopped to make a phone call about thirty minutes earlier, and a quick look through my binoculars revealed that it was Old Tom, in full stride.

Though there’s not a lot of science to quantify it, we know wild turkeys have very keen hearing. It is not so much their ability to hear, but how they use it that is most remarkable. As previously mentioned, they possess an extraordinary capacity to detect sounds and identify the precise location of their origin. Although I had previously seen it, that day on the power line verified what I had later seen numerous times over the years. I can say with confidence that if a bird is inclined to do so, it will locate you precisely once it hears your call.


Here, as in most turkey hunting situations, patience is the key. Most hunters nowadays, myself included, prefer a run-and-gun style of hunting. “If it’s not happening here, I’ll go some-where else and make it happen. ” And it works, sometimes.

(photo by Tes Jolly) Just because you don’t hear him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t hear you. He may be coming to you silently – this is when patience pays off. Too frequently, a hunter will leave a set-up and come back later to discover a “strutter” fanned out exactly where they were set up. Turkeys typically aren’t in a hurry.

Just as often you might be better off going “old school. It doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they won’t respond, even if they are silent, just because you can’t hear them. If you scouted sufficiently, you know they should be there somewhere. Sit down, yelp three times on a box call and wait a half hour, or more. Then repeat. Even though it might not have the same thrill as a gobbling, strutting bird approaching your decoy with courage, if the bird does eventually move silently into range, he will still be a dead bird.

Wild turkeys have mastered the ability to understand those sounds in addition to finding their source, as shown by their extensive vocabulary. What to us sounds like little more than turkey noise represents a diverse range of messages.

Yelps, clucks and purrs all convey different messages, which can also vary with tone and inflection. We are unable to go into too much detail because turkey calling has been the subject of numerous books and articles. To sum up, if you want to take advantage of it, you must learn to speak Turkish fluently through observation and listening. And that’s not even their keenest sense.

Although there hasn’t been much research on wild turkey vision specifically, birds generally have the most complex retina of any vertebrae (photo by Tes Jolly). A gobbler’s single cone photoreceptor is spectrally sensitive to wavelengths in the ultraviolet light range, which are around 400 nm.

Anyone who has ever moved inadvertently at the wrong time can attest to the legendary vision of the wild turkey. Starting with the fundamentals, their 300-degree stationary field of vision can be expanded to a full 360 degrees with a small head turn. So you’re not going to sneak up behind them. Additionally, although they lack the predators’ superior binocular vision provided by forward-facing eyes, they can still recognize spatial objects better thanks to head movement.

Surprisingly, far less research has been done on the eyesight of turkeys com-pared to that of deer. We are aware that they perceive color because of their reaction to variations in the hue of the head and neck appendages as well as our sporadic failures to conceal ourselves and our tools. According to a Scientific American article, the turkey’s retina has seven different types of photoreceptors. Unlike deer, which are crepuscular, turkeys are diurnal, meaning they’re most active during daylight. Their single rod, which is light-sensitive, allows them to see in dim light perhaps as well as humans do. But whereas humans only have four different types of cones, they have six, two of which are truly “double cones.” The article also claims that one of those cones has a spectral sensitivity in the UVA light range, though I was unable to locate any supporting data. At the very least, that makes blue and purple very bad colors to wear while turkey hunting. Additionally, it’s advised that you wash your hunting clothes in a UV light to see if they glow and avoid using regular household detergents with fabric brighteners.

Their visual acuity is mostly explained by their ability to process detail and detect movement quickly, rather than by their high magnification. Since turkeys spend most of their time on the ground, their senses have been refined over eons of avoiding predators, making them even more refined than those of other birds.

Your first, best defense in overcoming them is good camo. Because of this, designs such as Mossy Oak Obsession were created to both blur the lines between human and natural environments, such as spring woodlands. That means camo from head to toe, and specific attention to detail. The sun reflecting off a polished blue shotgun barrel or gleaming brass grommets on leather boots could be more than enough to draw attention to you.


And you’ve got to remain as motionless as possible. If you can see them, they can see you. Often, even when you can’t, they can. Turkeys, in contrast to humans, lack a sense of urgency. If they sense even the slightest threat, they will freeze in what can sometimes seem like an agonizingly long period of time. Don’t sneeze, don’t swat that mosquito, and don’t shift your weight. Even the heavy breathing and nervous shaking of an excited hunter could be enough to give you away.

The more you know about a turkey’s senses, the better your chances of “neutralizing” them. When adjusting a strutting tom at the last minute, wait until his fan blocks his vision or until his head disappears behind a tree or other obstruction. Otherwise, move SLOWLY.

Sometimes you have no choice. Turkeys also have an amazing knack for coming in on the wrong side—the right side if you’re a right-handed shooter, and vice versa—though this is certainly more coincidence than a conscious attempt. A quick move into a better shooting position will almost always fail because you can’t beat them on the draw. This could lead to a miss, no shot, or worse, a wounded bird. If you must move, move slowly. The bird will still recognize you, but if you’re lucky, it might pause as it tries to process what it’s seeing. If you need to move and they’re in the open, move while they’re moving.

You stop when they stop. Then, wait for them to move again before continuing. Better yet, if you have the opportunity, watch until they disappear behind a tree or until a strutting fan blocks your view.

A “Bird-Brain” With Senses So Acute It Makes Them Seem Clever

Bob Humphrey | Originally published in GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

(photo by Tes Jolly) A wild turkey’s hearing is remarkable. It is not so much their ability to hear, but how they use it. They possess an extraordinary capacity to detect sounds not only at a great distance but also precisely locate the source of the sound. Their eyesight is possibly even more acute. They have a field of vision of roughly 300 degrees when their head is motionless, and their color vision is probably far superior to that of humans.

How come, more often than not, a bird with a brain the size of a walnut defeats us?

I first struck the bird from a long way off. A few loud knocks on a box call produced a cooperative gobble, and a few more indicated he was really headed our way. We took up position immediately, shoulder to shoulder, at the base of a big live oak. I gave my partner the order to point his left shoulder in the direction of the bird and raise his gun to his knee.

The bird responded aggressively for some time before characteristically going quiet. While my accomplice grew increasingly restless, I strained eyes and ears for any trace of the turkey. The deep, resonant boom of a strutting tom was close, but he didn’t hear it. Then I spied the tips of a tail fan just over the rise in front of us. “Don’t move. Don’t even breathe,” I whispered emphatically.

As a guide, I have had the privilege of witnessing numerous initial meetings between hunters and the undeniable “king of North American game birds.” ” Not all turned out as hoped, but that’s part of the game. Among the many things I’ve learned is that a new hunter should never underestimate the heightened senses of a wild turkey. They rarely march obligingly in, and you’ll probably miss the shot if you wait until they’re almost in. Move now and you’ll be left with little more than a lesson on what not to do.


It is often said of turkeys, “If they could smell you, you’d never kill them. Perhaps so, but what senses they do have are some of the sharpest in the natural world, developed over eons of natural selection to guarantee the survival of the species. Even novice hunters occasionally encounter a “foolish” bird that makes them feel like a hero. But in order to succeed more frequently, you must research your target, identify both their advantages and disadvantages, and devise strategies to take advantage of them. The best learned lessons often come only with experience and frequently failure. Fortunately, those long, scaly legs do have a few “Achilles’ heels. ”.

Does Scent-Control Matter for Wild Turkeys? Yes!


Is it normal for turkey to smell?

Fresh raw ground turkey doesn’t give off any smell. The meat is likely spoiled if you unwrap the package and smell an unpleasant odor, like a sour scent.

Can turkeys smell corn?

This means turkeys have a pretty limited palette and are only able to sense flavors like sweet, sour, acid and bitter. Their sense of smell is equally weak. Observational studies have been done where biologists would test turkeys with piles of corn that contained moth balls.

Can turkeys see well?

Wild turkeys have very adept vision. They use this primarily to find food, such as insects, nuts, seeds, vegetation, etc. However, they also use sight as their primary defense mechanism against hunters, predators and other threats. Furthermore, their sight allows them to see and process visual data very quickly.

Can turkeys smell like deer?

We all know that turkeys can’t smell like deer do. But turkeys aren’t the only animals in the woods, during spring turkey season. Most places where you’ll discover turkeys you’ll also find deer. Every time I go hunting, I spray down with an odor eliminator, because animals other than turkeys can give alarm sounds.

Do turkeys have a good sense of smell?

For starters, turkeys have a very weak sense of taste. Like most birds, they only have a couple hundred taste buds, which is about 9000 less than a human. This means turkeys have a pretty limited palette and are only able to sense flavors like sweet, sour, acid and bitter. Their sense of smell is equally weak.

What does a Turkey smell like?

This means turkeys have a pretty limited palette and are only able to sense flavors like sweet, sour, acid and bitter. Their sense of smell is equally weak. Observational studies have been done where biologists would test turkeys with piles of corn that contained moth balls.

Do wild turkeys have a good olfactory sense?

Eriksen adds, “The olfactory sense in most birds, including the wild turkey, is poorly developed. The exceptions to that rule are vultures, condors and griffons.” Eriksen says the sense of smell may help the bird discern which food items are best, but it’s clearly the least important sense of wild turkeys.

Does a Turkey eat a taste?

Eriksen explains that taste is related to the sense of smell and is not utilized regularly. However, taste does come into play, to a limited degree, as the bird feeds since turkeys will discard extremely bitter food items while eating. “Smells are interpreted by the olfactory lobes in the forepart of the brain,” Dickson said.

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