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 iPad pals art 1 120613 Has the iPad lost its swag?

    The company reported this week that sales of its sleek, pricey tablet were down 19 percent from last quarter and 9 percent year-over-year. CEO Tim Cook tried to reassure investors that Apple's new partnership with IBM to sell its devices to IBM's corporate customers will help make iPads ubiquitous in the workplace. "This isn't something that worries us," he said of the iPad sales decline. But the numbers are disappointing no matter how you spin them.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Facebook continues moneymaking trend

    Facebook seems to have figured out - for now at least - the holy grail for all media right now: how to make money selling mobile ads.

    July 25, 2014

  • Police Brutality screen shot. Technology plays key part in battling police brutality (VIDEO)

    Allegations of police brutality are nothing new -- as long as there has been law enforcement, citizens have registered claims that some officers cross the line. But in the last few years, the claims of excessive force are being corroborated with new technology from cell phone cameras, police dash-cams and surveillance videos. 

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Arizona's prolonged lethal injection is fourth in U.S. this year

    Arizona's execution of double-murderer Joseph Wood marked the fourth time this year that a state failed to dispatch a convict efficiently, according to the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal group.3

    July 25, 2014

  • Vader Darth Vader is polling higher than all potential 2016 presidential candidates

    On the other hand, with a net favorability of -8, Jar Jar is considerably more popular than the U.S. Congress, which currently enjoys a net favorability rating of -65.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 2.00.42 PM.png VIDEO: Train collides with semi truck carrying lighter fluid

    A truck driver from Washington is fortunate to be alive after driving his semi onto a set of tracks near Somerset, Ky., and being struck by a locomotive, which ignited his load of charcoal lighter fluid.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • An oncologist uses scorpion venom to locate cancer cells

    Olson, a pediatric oncologist and research scientist in Seattle, has developed a compound he calls Tumor Paint. When injected into a cancer patient, it seems to light up all the malignant cells so surgeons can easily locate and excise them.

    July 22, 2014

  • mama.jpg What we get wrong about millennials living at home

    If the media is to be believed, America is facing a major crisis. "Kids," some age 25, 26, or even 30 years old, are living out of their childhood bedrooms and basements at alarmingly high numbers. The hand-wringing overlooks one problem: It's all overblown.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Expectations too high for a rehabbing Woods

    Tiger Woods finished near bottom last weekend at Royal Liverpool, drawing out his drought of major tournament wins. Despite the disappointing showing, Woods' return to form remains a matter of when, not if.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 110720 Walmart.jpg Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
House Ads
AP Video
Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Raw: Palestinians and Israeli Soldiers Clash Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow Gaza Residents Mourn Dead Amid Airstrikes Raw: Deadly Tornado Hits Virginia Campground Ohio State Marching Band Chief Fired After Probe Raw: Big Rig Stuck in Illinois Swamp Cumberbatch Brings 'Penguins' to Comic-Con Raw: Air Algerie Crash Site in Mali Power to Be Restored After Wash. Wildfire Crashed Air Algerie Plane Found in Mali Israel Mulls Ceasefire Amid Gaza Offensive
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