Niagara Gazette

Web Extra

November 26, 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 | Photo Reprints
Web Extra
  • NIA New planet art 041814 Astronomers spot most Earth-like planet yet Astronomers have discovered what they say is the most Earth-like planet yet detected -- a distant, rocky world that's similar in size to our own and exists in the Goldilocks zone where it's not too hot and not too cold for life.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • portraitoflotte.jpg VIDEO: From infant to teen in four minutes

    Dutch filmmaker Frans Hofmeester’s time lapse video of his daughter, Lotte — created by filming her every week from her birth until she turned 14 — has become a viral sensation.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.51.22 PM.png VIDEO: Toddler climbs into vending machine

    A child is safe after climbing into and getting stuck inside a claw crane machine at a Lincoln, Neb., bowling alley Monday.

    April 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 17, 2014

  • Low blood-sugar levels make for grousing spouses

    Husbands and wives reported being most unhappy with their spouses when their blood-sugar levels were lowest, usually at night, according to research released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Missing a meal, dieting or just being hungry may be the reason, researchers said.

    April 17, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 17, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-11 at 4.49.09 PM.png Train, entertain your pets with these 3 smartphone apps

    While they may not have thumbs to use the phone, pets can benefit from smartphone apps designed specifically for them.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • 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 14, 2014

  • Millions of Android phones, tablets vulnerable to Heartbleed bug

    Millions of smartphones and tablets running Google's Android operating system have the Heartbleed software bug, in a sign of how broadly the flaw extends beyond the Web and into consumer devices.

    April 14, 2014

  • mfp file Hoffner Fired coach unjustly accused of visiting porn sites

    The president of Minnesota State University-Mankato accused a football coach of looking at Internet porn on a work computer before firing him, an arbitrator has revealed. The official said the claim could not be supported, and the coach shouldn't have been fired.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
House Ads
AP Video
Raw: Magnitude-7.2 Earthquake Shakes Mexico City Ceremony at MIT Remembers One of Boston's Finest Raw: Students Hurt in Colo. School Bus Crash Raw: Church Tries for Record With Chalk Jesus Raw: Faithful Celebrate Good Friday Worldwide Deadly Avalanche Sweeps Slopes of Mount Everest Police Arrest Suspect in Highway Shootings Drought Concerns May Hurt Lake Tourism Vermont Goat Meat Gives Refugees Taste of Home Calif. Investigators Re-construct Fatal Bus Cras Mayor Rob Ford Launches Re-election Campaign Appellate Court Hears Okla. Gay Marriage Case Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez Dead at 87 Chelsea Clinton Is Pregnant Flamingo Frenzy Ahead of Zoo Construction Crew Criticized Over Handling of Ferry Disaster Agreement Reached to Calm Ukraine Tensions Boston Bombing Survivors One Year Later
Opinion
House Ads
Night & Day
Twitter News
Follow us on twitter
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Front page