Stimuli Eliciting Sexual Behavior in Turkeys, 1965


Male turkeys, presented with a lifelike model of a female turkey, will happily try to mate with it as eagerly as they would with the real thing. This observation intrigued Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of the University of Pennsylvania, and made them curious about what the minimal stimulus was that would excite a turkey. They embarked on a series of experiments to find out. This involved removing parts from a turkey model one by one, to determine when the male turkey would eventually lose interest.

They removed the tail, feet, and wings from the model, but still the bird waddled up to it, let out an amorous gobble, and tried to do his thing. Finally, only a head on a stick remained. And to the researchers’ surprise, the male turkey still showed great interest. In fact, it preferred a head on a stick over a headless body.

Schein and Hale subsequently investigated how minimal they could make the head itself before it failed to elicit a response. They discovered that freshly severed female heads impaled on sticks worked best, but if the male turkey had nothing else it would settle for a plain balsa wood head. Turkeys seemed to adhere to the philosophy that if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.

Curious about the mating habits of other poultry, Schein and Hale performed similar tests on White Leghorn Cocks. They published their results in an article with the intriguing title, “Effects of morphological variations of chicken models on sexual responses of cocks.”

•Schein, M.W., & E.B. Hale (1965). “Stimuli eliciting sexual behavior.” In Sex and Behavior (F.A. Beach, ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

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