Gobble up, gobble up
Turkey sandwiches are gobbled up all year round, but during Thanksgiving, the wattled bird is the star attraction on the dinner table. But there’s more to turkeys than meets the eye. Like all birds, the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is a living dinosaur, which means it is related to tyrannosaurus rex. The official Thanksgiving bird can sport multiple beards, and it has an iridescent cousin known as the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) which lives in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, northern Belize and northern Guatemala.
CNET delves into the rich biology, history, and folklore behind the harvest festival staple. We hope you gobble up some turkey science with your holiday meal.
1. They sport beards
The centerpiece of many Thanksgiving tables once sported a beard? Well, sort of. The hair-like hairs that grow from the breasts of male turkeys (or gobblers) and some hens are actually specialized feathers called meso filoplumes that grow from a single follicle. They can be long, with a few barbs touching the ground, though feeding tends to wear down the ends, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Some birds have two: Gobblers with eight huge barbs have been spotted, according to the Game Commission, although of the 10% of turkeys with multiple barbs, most only have two.
Although scientists aren’t certain of the purpose of filoplumes, they could serve a sensory function: their movement could send information to birds about “Their small movements send information to nerve cells to tell a bird when its outline feathers should be adjusted”, according to The Nature of Feathers.
2. Related to T. rex?
A turkey’s triangle — the one you and your sister pull from opposite ends to see who gets the middle nodule — is formed by the fusion of the bird’s two collarbones. Also called furcular, the bone serves as a connection point for the muscles and a splint for the wings. During the bird’s flapping (yes, turkeys can fly at speeds of 50 mph or 80.5 km/h in short bursts), the triangle acts like a spring to store and release energy. This elasticity is also the reason why breaking a triangle before it dries is so difficult. Turns out the triangle is more than just a fun Turkey Day game; it also serves as a reminder that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs. Researchers have found that the triangle dates back more than 150 million years to theropods, a group of carnivorous dinosaurs that includes T. rex and Velociraptor.
3. They sleep in trees
Because turkeys are so big and heavy – with the heaviest wild turkey weighing 86 pounds (39 kilograms), according to Guinness World Records (opens in a new tab) — these large birds are often assumed to stick to the ground. In fact, turkeys prefer to sleep perched atop tree branches, where they are safe from predators including coyotes, foxes and raccoons. They often sleep in groups, and upon waking emit a series of soft cries before descending to ensure that the rest of their roosting group is okay after a night without seeing or hearing each other.
4. Female turkeys don’t swallow
Don’t be disappointed if the Petting Zoo turkey refuses to swallow – it’s probably a female, called a hen. Male turkeys are called gobblers because only they can make that adorable gobble sound. Each male turkey has its own unique gobbling “technique”, which it combines with courtship to attract potential mates. Female turkeys communicate by clucking and small chirping noises.
5. Do they make you sleep?
If you’re feeling groggy after an old-fashioned Thanksgiving meal, the bird on your plate may be partly to blame. Turkey meat contains tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate sleep. However, all meats contain tryptophan at comparable levels. Other tryptophan-rich foods include cheese, nuts, and shellfish. What makes the Thanksgiving meal so tiring is the mix of meat and carbs. Carbohydrates from stuffing, sweet potatoes, bread, pie and sweets stimulate the release of insulin, which then triggers the absorption of most amino acids – except tryptophan – from the blood to muscles. With the other amino acids removed from the bloodstream, tryptophan doesn’t have to compete with them and is better able to travel to the brain to help produce serotonin, which then prepares you for sleep.
6. Franklin loved turkeys?
Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter extolling the virtues of the turkey, sparking centuries of speculation that he preferred gobblers to bald eagles as the national emblem and mascot of the United States.
But maybe it was a joke.
It’s hard to know exactly what Franklin was thinking, but he may have made fun of the American tendency to create national things, like a national bird or a national tree, which wasn’t done much in the 18th century. . Or perhaps he wrote the letter as a satire to return the bird to the Society of the Cincinnati, a patriotic organization created by former Revolutionary War officers; it is possible that Franklin was mocking their hereditary terms of membership.
However, Franklin never categorically declared that the turkey should be the national bird. On the contrary, he complimented the turkey while disparaging the eagle.
7. Wild turkeys can fly
Wild turkeys can fly in short bursts at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour (89 km per hour). However, like other game birds, they are very poor flyers because their wings are too small and their flight muscles are too large and heavy, which prevents them from soaring through the air.
Turkeys prefer to feed on the ground, where they peck at grass, seeds, acorns, nuts, berries and small insects like grasshoppers. The myth of turkeys’ inability to fly may stem from the fact that many domestic turkeys, such as the broad-breasted white turkey – which is the breed most widely used commercially – cannot fly; they are too weighed down by their own meat. These birds have been selectively bred to be much heavier and possess larger and broader chests, the weight of which keeps them perpetually grounded.
8. They have periscopic vision
As many hunters know, a turkey has excellent eyesight. Because its eyes are on the sides of its head, the turkey has periscopic vision, which allows it to see objects that are not in its direct field of vision. By rotating its head, the turkey has a 360-degree field of vision, according to James G. Dickson “The Wild Turkey: Biology and Management (opens in a new tab)(Stackpole Books, 1992).
9. They blush
When a turkey becomes frightened, agitated, excited, or sick, the exposed skin on its head and neck may turn from its usual pale pink or bluish-gray color to red, white, or blue. And during mating season, the male turkey’s wattle turns scarlet to reflect its high levels of sex hormones. The fleshy flap of skin that hangs above the gobbler’s beak is called a snood and also turns bright red when the bird is excited.
10. They have stones in their bellies
Here’s a part of the turkey that kids won’t be fighting over at the Thanksgiving table: Part of the bird’s stomach, called the gizzard, contains tiny pebbles that the bird has already swallowed. Also known as gastroliths, these polished stones help in the breakdown of food for digestion, as birds do not have teeth.
They do, however, have two stomachs, the first of which is called the glandular stomach, where food is softened and broken down by gastric juices. The food then enters the turkey’s gizzard, which is extremely muscular and further dissolves the food by grinding it against the gastroliths before moving the mulch into the intestines or glandular stomach for further digestion.
Editor’s Note: Originally published November 23, 2015 and updated November 23, 2022.