Before you gobble up your turkey on Thursday, take a moment or two to familiarize yourself with the strange history of the bird that's America's fourth-favorite meat source.
The most familiar part of the turkey is the fan-like tail on the male, or 'tom' turkey, which he uses in displays to court females. Other distinctive turkey traits are the fleshy bit above a male bird's beak that grows from the forehead, which is called a snood, and the part that hangs down his chin, which is called the wattle. When the tom wants to attract a female, his snood and wattle fill up with blood and turn bright red. If the tom is scared, those parts can turn blue; if he's sick, the snood and wattle will be pale-colored.
Last year, about 736 million pounds of turkey were eaten on Thanksgiving in the U.S., according to the National Turkey Federation. The NTF is the poultry group that presents the president of the United States with two dressed turkeys and a live turkey – usually a Broad-breasted White turkey, the breed of choice for large turkey farms – each Thanksgiving. The turkey traditionally receives a presidential “pardon,” and retires to the estate of President George Washington in Mount Vernon, Va., to feather its nest.
This year's lucky bird is Cobbler, a 40-pound, 2-foot tall tom born in July. Cobbler was selected to receive the presidential pardon through a nationwide poll. But the alternate, Gobbler, won't be headed for the dinner table either; he'll be joining Cobbler in Mount Vernon.
Although Americans love to munch on turkey meat, the U.S. actually does not have the highest rate of turkey consumption per person. That honor goes to Israel, whose citizens consume an average of more than 25 pounds per person each year, according to the NTF.
Ye Age Old Thanksgiving Debate: White Meat or Dark?
Americans tend to prefer the white meat of the turkey, which is generally found in the breast. The dark meat tends to come from the legs and is darker thanks to the presence of myoglobin, a protein that helps the bird's leg muscles use oxygen more efficiently. White meat tends to have fewer calories and less fat, but dark meat has more vitamins like riboflavin, iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and B6.
However, the difference in calories and fat between the two types of meat is pretty slim. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an ounce of turkey breast with skin removed has 46 calories and 1 gram of fat, while an ounce of boneless, skinless thigh meat has about 50 calories and two grams of fat.
The wishbone of a turkey, also called a furcula – Latin for 'little fork' – is found in many other birds. The furcula is made of the bird's fused collarbones, and aids in flight. The Y-shape of the wishbone makes it especially good at holding up under the large forces generated by the flaps of the bird's wings. Scientists think the furcula also stores some of the energy made by the bird's breast muscles as they contract, and then releases it like a spring during the upstroke, helping the bird fly more efficiently.
This past August, University of Florida researchers revealed that they'd found evidence the turkey was domesticated by Mayans about 2,000 years ago, 1,000 years earlier than previously thought. In a paper in the journal PloS ONE, the scientists described how they found fossilized bones belonging to Meleagris gallopavo, the Mexican turkey that is the ancestor of all domesticated turkeys.
Because the bones were discovered in Guatemala, south of the Mexican turkey's natural range, there had to be some sort of animal trade between inhabitants of northern parts of Mesoamerica and the Mayans between 300 BC and 100 AD.
"This research has consequences for understanding Maya subsistence because they would have had access to a controlled, managed resource," lead study author and Florida Museum of Natural History researcher Erin Thornton said in a statement this past August. "The turkey bones came from right within the ceremonial precinct of the site, so these are probably the remains of some sort of elite sacrifice, meal or feast."
The Turkey Genome
The turkey genome was sequenced in 2010 by a large international team of researchers. In their paper in the journal PLoS Biology outlining their results, the scientists were particularly interested in comparing the turkey genome to the chicken genome.
Both birds have been manipulated by human interference attempting to produce similar traits like larger weight, but the effects on their genomes appear to be different. The chicken genome shows more signs of recent evolution in genes that are involved in cell proliferation and protein processing. The pressure in the turkey genome, however, seems to be focused on genes that regulate transcription – the process through which bits of important DNA are turned into RNA, the first step in creating the protein products of genes.
Turkeys Gone Wild
Wild turkeys still roam the the U.S., mostly throughout the East Coast and Midwest, but with small pockets of activity on the West Coast and in Mexico.
In the breeding season, wild turkeys can become aggressive. The California Department of Fish and Game recommends that people install motion-detecting sprinklers on their property and removing any bird feeders that may be attracting them. If a wild turkey confronts you on the street and won't be scared off, an open umbrella can be your best defense.
Turkey vs. Bald Eagle
It's a popular myth that Ben Franklin proposed making the turkey the national bird, and was crestfallen by the choice of the bald eagle. There's an element of truth to this, but Franklin was not actually involved in the committee that chose the bald eagle to support America's national coat of arms. Franklin was on a committee that did some preliminary work on the subject, but that body stopped meeting in August 1776, while the bald eagle did not appear on any proposed designs until May 1782.
Franklin did contrast the virtues of the turkey with the supposed vices of the bald eagle in a private letter to his daughter sent in 1784. But the true subject of his scorn was the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity that Franklin and others at the time opposed, because it seemed to similar to orders of chivalry, which smacked of the yoke of nobility that America had fought so hard to throw off.
In the midst of his letter, Franklin tutted about the “bad moral Character” of the eagle, which appeared on the Society of Cincinnati's badge. The bald eagle, Franklin claimed, is nothing but a rank scavenger, waiting for an osprey to catch a fish and then, swooping down and stealing the fruits of the other bird's labor.
Franklin was only partially correct in his condemnation of the bald eagle – America's national bird does scavenge carcasses and steal from other birds a lot, but it will catch its own meals, usually fish, if it can. Sometimes it even preys on other birds, as seen through the lens of one Canadian photographer, who captured a bald eagle attacking a trumpeter swan.
“In Truth,” Franklin wrote, “the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
Though the turkey might not be the national bird for most of the year, millions of Americans will vote with their knives and forks on Thanksgiving.
Roxanne has liked science ever since she started watching "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on Saturday mornings over a bowl of sucrotic O's. She especially likes writing about...