Tribute to the Turkey

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Now that Thanksgiving is nearly here, can we pause for a moment of silence for those 46 million turkeys that will sacrifice their lives so that we can doze through holiday football in a satisfied, gluttonous haze?

If that sounds like a lot of turkeys, it is.  That number of turkeys standing as closely packed as possible without jostling one another would occupy about 3 square miles or 1500 football fields.  Over the course of a year, Americans eat over 200 million turkeys, which also seems like a lot until you consider that we eat more than 8 billion – with a “B” – chickens per year.  

Of course – delicious as they are – we don’t eat real turkeys on Thanksgiving.  We eat their domesticated cousins –domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico more than 2,000 years ago.   Conquistadores hauled them back to Europe in the early 1500’s, where they spread rapidly because of the popularity of their meat, eggs, and feathers, eventually making their way to England, where they got their English name due to a misidentification.  The English thought they were African guineafowl – another plump, tasty ground bird with colorful head ornaments – which were commonly imported from Turkey.  And so they were called “Turkey fowl.”  We now have a quintessentially American bird domesticated in Mexico and named after a Eurasian country which it never inhabited.  

Domesticated turkeys were reimported to the Americas with some of the first English colonists, maybe even the very first colonists – those of Jamestown not the late-comers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.   Ironically, it isn’t clear that turkeys were eaten at that first Thanksgiving.  The only contemporary account of that meal by Edward Winslow describes only that they ate “fowl,” which could have been ducks, geese, swans, or cranes as easily as turkeys.  

Like almost everything else we’ve domesticated, the turkey that most of us eat is a bizarre creature.  We have selected it for those large, tasty breast muscles which are now so large that they are no longer useful for their primary purpose, which was to fly.  Wild turkeys routinely fly short distances.  In fact, they roost in trees.  We’ve also selected for large, bulky thigh muscles because of our love of drumsticks.  So domestic turkeys can’t run well either.  One thing that hasn’t changed is muscle -- that is, meat -- color.  White muscle is designed for short bursts of energy. Wild turkeys use their breast muscles to flap their wings several times per second for short bursts of flight.  Dark muscle is designed for endurance.  Wild turkeys can run for much longer than they can fly.  

In Alabama, we are fortunate to have plenty of wild turkeys.  These elegant dark-colored birds can be heard gobbling in the forest in the spring.  This is the sound of males courting.  Male turkeys are in fact properly known as gobblers.  During this breeding period males may also develop iridescent red, green, gold, or copper-colored plumage to help attract females.  By summer you will see hens followed by their flock of chicks, and in the fall and winter you might see flocks of dozens of turkeys of both sexes foraging for acorns, hickory, and beech nuts on the ground.    As is well-known, Benjamin Franklin considered the wild turkey so majestic that he favored it over the bald eagle as our national symbol.  

The domestic turkey is a different story altogether.  In a past life, I spent several weeks each fall making daily visits to a California turkey farm that just before Thanksgiving held nearly a million birds.  These birds were pure white, deafeningly noisy, and spectacularly stupid.  The reason I visited the farm each afternoon was to retrieve carcasses of birds that were trampled to death in the turkey stampede that invariably accompanied the appearance of the feed truck.  These carcasses served a good purpose though.  The big cats, lions and tigers, I was caring for loved them.  They would eat everything, bones and feathers included.

It’s difficult for me to avoid concluding that these domesticated birds are the reason that the whole species gets so little respect.  After all, think of how we take their name in vain.  A failed show business production or hopelessly inept person is a turkey.  Game hunting too easy to be worth the effort is a turkey shoot.  Nonsensical speech like that of politicians is called gobbledygook.  

But it’s a season for charity and good will.  Let’s thank those 46 million turkeys.  They might lack dignity in life, but they certainly do enrich our holiday on the platter.

To Err is Human, to Admit it is Not

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About Me
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I am a scientist and writer. My early research was field-based. I have done field research in several parts of the United States, Venezuela, East Africa, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea. Once I became interested in the biology of aging, my research became more laboratory oriented. Perhaps because of my background in English, I have always been eager to communicate the excitement of science to the public at large. In that capacity I have written popular books, planned museum exhibits, and produced a regular newspaper column on science.

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Methuselah’s Zoo:
What Nature Can
Teach Us about Living
Healthier Lives

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1. Living is inherently destructive.

Biologist Max Kleiber called it The Fire of Life—which is more than a metaphor. Our bodies consist of forty trillion cells, each of which is an energy factory. That energy is provided by chemical reactions identical to those of a highly regulated fire. The chemical bonds in food are torn apart with the help of oxygen to release the energy needed to perform all cellular functions. This is precisely the same chemistry that causes the chemical bonds in wood, paper, or gasoline to be torn apart with the help of oxygen to release energy in the form of fire.

Just as fire produces side effects—sparks, soot, smoke—our cellular energy factories also do, by way of chemical by-products. Some of these by-products are oxygen radicals, which are destructive to the cellular energy factories themselves. To give an idea of the scale of damage, the DNA in each of our cells is estimated to be damaged by internal fire at least ten thousand times per day. Ten thousand bits of DNA damage per day times forty trillion cells and we are talking about numbers more familiar to astronomers than biologists. How do we survive for months, much less decades, in the face of such destruction?

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