Tahlequah Daily Press

Get the scoop!

November 25, 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
Get the scoop!
  • 3.2 quake shakes area near Enid

    A magnitude 3.2 earthquake shook the Enid area Thursday evening.

    August 1, 2014

  • Why a see-through mouse is a big deal for scientists

    A group of Caltech researchers announced in Cell Thursday their success in making an entire organism transparent. Unfortunately, this isn't any kind of "Invisible Man" scenario: The organism in question is a mouse, and the mouse in question is quite dead.

    July 31, 2014

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Grandstands feel a little empty at NASCAR races

    Two decades after NASCAR started running at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the crowds have thinned considerably. It's probably no reflection on the sport's massive following, which stretches from coast to coast, but it surely doesn't NASCAR's image help when the cameras pan across all of those empty seats.

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • The virtues of lying

    Two computational scientists set out recently to simulate the effects of lying in a virtual human population. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, show that lying is essential for the growth of a cohesive social network.

    July 31, 2014

  • lockport-police.jpg Police department turns to Facebook for guidance on use of 'negro'

    What seems to be a data entry mistake by a small town police department in western New York has turned into a social media firestorm centered around the word "negro" and whether it's acceptable to use in modern society.

    July 31, 2014 3 Photos

  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Rodden, Danny.jpg Sheriff accused of lying about relationship with prostitute

    The sheriff of Clark County, Ind., faces an eight-count federal indictment that accuses him of lying about paying a prostitute for a sex act and giving her a badge so that she could claim a discount rate at a hotel.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Sideshows involving Rice and Dungy stain NFL's image

    Pro football training camps should be all about, well, football. But the talk around the NFL is about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice's two-game suspension, Tony Dungy's indelicate remarks about Michael Sam and Jim Irsay's largesse. What kind of league is Roger Goodell running?

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 30, 2014

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 30, 2014

  • 20140727-AMX-GUNS271.jpg Beretta, other gun makers heading to friendlier states

    In moving south and taking 160 jobs with it, Beretta joins several other prominent gunmakers abandoning liberal states that passed tough gun laws after the Newtown shooting.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fast food comes to standstill in China

    The shortage of meat is the result of China's latest food scandal, in which a Shanghai supplier allegedly tackled the problem of expired meat by putting it in new packaging and shipping it to fast-food restaurants around the country

    July 28, 2014

Poll

Do you think "blue laws" related to Sunday alcohol sales in Oklahoma should be relaxed? Choose the option that most closely reflects your opinion.

Alcoholic drinks should be sold Sundays in restaurants and bars, and liquor stores should be open.
Alcoholic drinks should be sold Sundays in restaurants and bars only; liquor stores should stay closed.
Liquor stores should be open Sundays, but drinks should not be served anywhere on Sundays.
The law should remain as it is now; liquor stores should be closed, and drinks should be served on Sundays according to county option.
No alcohol should be sold or served publicly on Sundays.
Undecided.
     View Results
Tahlequah Daily Press Twitter
Follow us on twitter
AP Video
Renewed Violence Taking Toll on Gaza Residents 2 Americans Detained in North Korea Seek Help US Employers Add 209K Jobs, Rate 6.2 Pct House GOP Optimistic About New Border Bill Gaza Truce Unravels; Israel, Hamas Trade Blame Raw: Tunisia Closes Borders With Libya Four Rescued From Crashed Plane Couple Channel Grief Into Soldiers' Retreat WWI Aviation Still Alive at Aerodrome in NY Raw: Rescuers at Taiwan Explosion Scene Raw: Woman Who Faced Death Over Faith in N.H. Clinton Before 9-11: Could Have Killed Bin Laden Netanyahu Vows to Destroy Hamas Tunnels Obama Slams Republicans Over Lawsuit House Leaders Trade Blame for Inaction
Stocks