Mt. Vernon Register-News

Community News Network

November 28, 2013

Turkeys are funny-looking and tasty, but can they fly?

Turkeys are an ungainly mess of a bird. Their bodies appear too big for their scrawny legs, and they are pocked with all manner of bizarre anatomical structures, including snoods (fleshy bumps on their foreheads) and a dewlap (that distinctive flappy wattle under its neck). But amazingly, the bird - at least in its wild form - can fly.

Granted, it's not the graceful soaring of an eagle or the darting flight of a hummingbird - but the bird can lift off the ground. In fact, as Charles Darwin could have told you, a wild turkey is amazingly well adapted for explosive, short-distance flight, perfect for escaping predators.

"Turkeys spend 99.999 percent of their lives on their legs, so they're built a little like a hoofed animal," notes Ken Dial, a professor of biology at the University of Montana who studies animal flight. "Their bodies are squashed laterally, with their knees pulled in and their legs splayed. The legs have excellent circulation to supply fuel for sustained running."

Those powerful legs also come in handy when a turkey decides to fly. Just before takeoff, the bird squats slightly, then explodes upward from its legs to get the process started. Contrast this with the takeoff style of an albatross, which needs a fairly long runway to achieve liftoff, a little like a fully loaded jetliner.

Once airborne, the turkey's wings come to life. Unlike the muscles of the hind limbs, which are made for sustained use, the breast muscles that power a turkey's wings are built for rapid but brief exertions. A wild turkey rarely flies more than about 100 yards, which is usually enough to bring it to safety. (Glycogen, the energy-carrying chemical that feeds a turkey's breast during flight, "is used up very quickly," Dial says. "It's something like nitro fuel for a dragster.")

The wing architecture also carries an indication of the turkey's flight habits. Turkey wings are highly cupped, a trait known in aerodynamics as camber, which enables quick takeoff.

If you've ever been to a turkey farm, you know that domesticated turkeys - the kind most of us eat - do not fly. Why?

Their breasts became too strong. Farmers prize turkeys that grow large breast and thigh muscles, because those are the most valuable parts in the poultry market. Over time, farmers have bred turkeys to have larger and larger breasts.

A turkey breast gets stronger as it gets larger, but the animal's power-to-mass ratio diminishes, so it can't flap quickly enough to support sustained flight. In a sense, its exactly the opposite of what happened to the now-extinct dodo. When that bird's flying ancestors arrived on the predator-free island of Mauritius, building powerful wings became a waste of energy. Over the generations, the dodo's breast muscles grew too weak to enable it to fly.

The domesticated turkey's massive breast muscles also begin to stretch the tendons and ligaments that hold the animal together, and the shoulder joint gradually pushes apart, further inhibiting flight. (Wild turkeys, in contrast, have strong, stable shoulder joints.)

There's probably an element of psychology involved as well. "Farmers want turkeys that use every calorie of feed to build muscle," Dial says. "Birds that are anxious or jittery and attempt to fly away at every provocation waste their calories. So farmers have probably bred the motivation to fly out of their turkeys."

Living conditions also discourage turkeys from staying in flying shape. Factory-farmed turkeys are often kept indoors or in tiny spaces that don't allow them to spread their wings and take off. Natural predators are kept at a safe distance. Those birds that are raised on more-spacious ranches are more likely to at least attempt a quick takeoff and a brief flap.

If turkey is on the menu at your Thanksgiving this year, take a moment to appreciate the wondrous creatures from which your bird is descended. The wild turkey is among the five largest flying birds in the world, along with swans, the giant albatross, South America's giant vultures and the kori bustard, an African bird. Peaking at around 29 pounds, wild turkeys can weigh more than many 3-year-old children. If you equipped your preschooler with a well-cambered set of wings, she would have absolutely no hope of getting airborne for even a moment, even if you might like her to fly away for a few minutes while you're preparing your Thanksgiving dinner.

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Victimized by the 'marriage penalty'

    In a few short months, I'll pass the milestone that every little girl dreams of: the day she swears - before family and God, in sickness and in health, all in the name of love - that she's willing to pay a much higher tax rate.

    April 15, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Google acquires drone maker Titan Aerospace to spread Internet

    Google is adding drones to its fleets of robots and driverless cars.
    The Internet search company said it acquired Titan Aerospace, the maker of high-altitude, solar-powered satellites that provides customer access to data services around the world. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

    April 14, 2014

  • E-Cigarettes target youth with festivals, lawmakers say

    The findings, in a survey released Monday by members of Congress, should prod U.S. regulators to curb the industry, the lawmakers said. While e-cigarettes currently are unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration is working on a plan that would extend its tobacco oversight to the products.

    April 14, 2014

  • Why Facebook is getting into the banking game

    Who would want to use Facebook as a bank? That's the question that immediately arises from news that the social network intends to get into the electronic money business.

    April 14, 2014

  • Stepping forward: The real Colbert

    Letterman changed the late-night TV game between his run on NBC's "Late Night" and starting the "Late Show" franchise in 1993. And while it's tough to replace a pop-culture icon, Colbert, in terms of pedigree and sense of humor, makes the most sense.

    April 11, 2014

  • Teens trading naked selfies for mugshots

    Will teenagers ever learn? You think yours will. Maybe so. But it's likely that was also the hope of the parents of children who were so shamed by nude photos of themselves that went south - how else can they go - that they killed themselves.

    April 10, 2014

  • Boston doctors can now prescribe you a bike

    The City of Boston this week is rolling out a new program that's whimsically known as "Prescribe-a-Bike." Part medicine, part welfare, the initiative allows doctors at Boston Medical Center to write "prescriptions" for low-income patients to get yearlong memberships to Hubway, the city's bike-share system, for only $5.

    April 10, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 10.25.07 AM.png VIDEO: Cement truck crashes into minivan

    A professor at Texas A&M University was fortunate to escape serious injury recently when a cement truck ran a red light at a College Station intersection and crashed head-on into his minivan. A dash camera that Dr. Guan Zhu had installed about a year ago captured the entire incident.

    April 10, 2014 1 Photo

  • 2012_Mazda6_--_NHTSA.jpg Brakes, steering and...spiders? What's behind the latest auto recalls

    11 million vehicles have already been recalled in 2014 for everything from power steering failure to vulnerability to spider attack.

    Check out the full list of 2014 recalls.

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks