Look like a Wild Turkey

I want to look like a turkey. Don’t misread me. I want to look like one, not look like a turkey. The eyesight of wild turkeys is superior to every other inhabitant of eastern forests with the exception of raptors and vultures, and probably three times as acute as a human hunter with 20/20 vision.

Little details that don’t get our attention matter to turkeys. They notice a trivial silhouette that might betray the ears of a lurking coyote, or the metallic ring pointing out of shrubbery 100 yards away that could be a shotgun barrel. They might even notice an unfamiliar blue flash on a hunter’s camouflaged jacket who didn’t realize that detergent containing optical brighteners leaves fluorescent traces that are noticed by quarry with sharp eyes at the blue end of the spectrum.

Where Wild Turkeys safely graze
Where Wild Turkeys safely graze

But when I look peep through a window to watch a gang of turkeys feeding at our sanctuary area it’s not only their visual supremacy I admire but how acutely they take in their surroundings, as of course they must. If we were a prey species we would not last long in the woods, having lost or forgotten the craft of “looking out.” When I saunter along a trail I have less than half a mind on my surroundings, being either engaged in conversation with another hiker or lost in private thoughts. If this is true of a naturalist I guess it must be general. What do I miss on a hike—a rare bird or butterfly, a glistening stone or weird mushroom, a trail of beaten grass or an intriguing dollop of scat? How much richer the experience if I looked harder, saw more, mentally engaged my surroundings; how many more critters and stories could I bring home if I saw the signs? My eyes focus on the next footfalls and anything beyond a few yards is a forgotten blur. I might notice more if I were a blind man accustomed to using sharp ears.


This lack of attention is even more wretched in town than in the woods. Some writers break from their desk to have a smoke: I go out for a walk to mentally work through a tricky paragraph or overcome writer’s block. Without a dog guiding me on a leash I might bump into a post from somnolently gazing at my feet pacing the sidewalk.  There is an element of courtesy in this dream-walking because I can’t be accused of looking nosily in the windows of houses or at people on their porches. But I wonder how much interesting stuff I miss by not looking out, stuff that might feed a writer’s fancy, and there was never a better opportunity for spying on eccentricity than when I walked to work along First Avenue in NYC where so many strange birds make their nest.

This musing threw me back to memories of when I was a Boy Scout. The scouting motto is Be Prepared, but there is another—Look Wide. Even after all these years it is hard to keep a lookout, requiring a disciplined act of concentration like keeping a stiff back instead of slouching like many other tall people.

The founder of the scouting movement Lord Robert Baden-Powell wrote: “Look wide, and even when you think you are looking wide—look wider still.” Our favorite scout activity was the Wide Game in which half the troop was sent into the woods as hiders while the rest waited fifteen minutes to go after them as seekers. It honed our powers of observation, skills that Baden-Powell brought home as a colonial army officer from the Matabele and Boer Wars.  They are not so much valued today except by hunters and search-and-rescue squads, and society might be approaching a nadir as we focus on smartphones and tablets, seldom casting aside to everyone and everything around. We look narrow.

I suspect professional artists look differently. I never looked as carefully at objects than when I dabbled in painting. In a Norwegian study tiny cameras were used to track eye movements in trained artists to compare with a group of non-artists (Perception 2007; 36:91-100). They were asked to look at a scene or a picture and then look again more intently to remember it. The non-artists quickly focused on the chief features—a house, a person, an animal—and their attention didn’t wander far for long. The eyes of artists, however, tracked back and forth, up and down, scanning the entire field and following the shapes, forms, and colors. Their look was not strongly focused on the main subject, and they remembered details better. They look wide.

We expect artists to be better observers of nature, but I was surprised when I read that minor visual disabilities are more common among art students. Stranger still, Rembrandt’s self-portraits seem to depict a man with cross eyes (strabismus), which would have impaired his depth perception. Perhaps I now understand why I was taught in art classes to close one eye when drafting a picture. It helps pay attention to the details of the subject as well as frame a picture with two-dimensions from three.

That brings me round to wild turkeys. They are strabismotic because their eyes are on the sides of their head, and they gain a penetrating impression of their surroundings by constantly rotating their heads through 360 degrees. Turkeys teach me to look, but I stop at rubbernecking.

Next Post: Last of the Autumn Leaves

Explore your Longevity with UbbLE

Two Swedish biostatisticians drawing data from the UK Biobank have created a test accessible online for estimating your “age” and chances of surviving the next five years. It’s published in The Lancet medical journal. I couldn’t wait to try it!

The test has an odd name, “UbbLE,” for UK Biobank Longevity Explorer, yet easy to remember because it rhymes with “Hubble” the telescope. The Biobank is a database of half a million British volunteers who answered a detailed questionnaire about their health history and habits and underwent a physical exam and a battery of tests. Their health is being monitored for the rest of their lives.

The UbbLE test requires answers to 13 or 11 questions for men or women, respectively. They have been condensed from a grand total of 655 variables in the database to a bunch that is most predictive of five-year mortality and “UbbLE age.”

To qualify for the test you must be 40 to 70 years old and have lived permanently in the British Isles. Having lived there for almost five decades and continuing a similar (or better) lifestyle in the USA I think I qualify. So what did I find?

My UbbLE age is a full 12 years lower than my chronological age. That implies I have the mortality risk of a 54-year-old. Secondly, I have a 3% risk of dying in the next five years. There will be cynics who doubt this post and would love to burst my UbbLE: “It must be a lousy test”/ “He lied about the answers”/ “He screwed up”/  “He’d never say if results went the other way” (TRUE).

It takes luck to have a greater life expectancy, and it’s helpful to be young! But, more seriously, it helps to have a low BMI (weight for height) and a brisk walking pace, to be a non-smoker and free of any history of cancer, diabetes and mental illness, and better not to be poor.

UbbLE doesn’t predict longevity more than five years ahead. So it is no substitute for the MetLife longevity predictor used by insurers and investors, but it’s the best test of its kind to date.

Says more about longevity than a thousand words or statistics

I was curious how my UbbLE age and mortality risk would change if I played with the answers. The second most predictive factor (after walking pace) is smoking, so I re-ran the test by pretending to be a current smoker. It lifted my UbbLE age from 54 to 62, and my five-year mortality climbed from 3 to 6%. The estimated loss of eight years of my life is enormous, and there are smoking-related disabilities that the test ignores. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for us, but we can kid ourselves that we are in the short and lucky percentile at the healthy end of the spectrum of probability. Since the risk of a fatal smoking-related disease is statistical there is enough wiggle room in the spectrum for smokers to believe “it won’t happen to me,“ as a friend once told me after smoking two packs a day for 72 years. Perhaps the test will help a few more people give up the habit.

I don’t take much comfort in my own results because of a superstitious fear of being hit by a bolt of lightning. You can never be really sure in the longevity stakes. But they have nudged me to consider if my investments for retirement are too conservative for my UbbLE age. Will they provide enough income through equity growth to cover me if I survive deep into my nineties before I am struck down?

People in possession of a few facts about others can play the UbbLE game to satisfy their curiosity. They might put the geezer next-door secretly to the test after he threatens their dog for running in his yard, hoping he will drop dead before Max. And someone grumbling about alimony might want to know the chances of natural causes ending payments to an EX in the next five years. UbbLE can make statistics fun!

One of the main attractions of the test is its simplicity, and another is the authority of a huge database behind it. In future, it will be refined for testing people younger than 40 and older than 70. But we should be glad that the science of predicting when we will die is never going to be highly precise, otherwise we would have some hard choices and feelings. For healthy people of any age predictions will always be blurred, and even those in failing health often fool a doctor who offers a precise forecast. It’s much better that way.

Next Post: Nature versus Nurture


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