Thanksgiving Day has passed and if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you’re probably still recovering from turkey overload. Yesterday we commemorated that mythical feast between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, where they all sat down to share in this land’s bounty. (“Would you like some smallpox with your gravy?”)Actually, Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday. Fall is a wonderful time of year and turkey day is tucked nicely between Halloween and Christmas, resulting in a blissful holiday trifecta. I’ve already compared the human circulatory system to a fire engine (April’s Anatomy of a Fire Truck), but to commemorate Thanksgiving, I thought we’d have some more fun with comparative anatomy and see how much we share in common with our feathered friends. Let’s begin with a glimpse at our genealogies.
Birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs around 170 million years ago. This ancient ancestry accounts for the many different bird species that exist today; around ten thousand at last count. Humans, on the other hand, split from our last common ancestor (LCA, if you want to sound savvy) a mere six million years ago, give or take a million. Birds beat us on scene by a long shot.Feathers evolved, not for flight, but probably for insulation or display. Only later were they commandeered as part of the airborne assemblage. Turkeys sport an impressive array - over thirty-five hundred. We, on the other hand, lack these colorful adornments and can only grow hair, although there are some among us who could give Sasquatch a run for his money.
Turkeys, like us, are vertebrates. Thus, we share many of the same bones, although theirs have been modified for flight. Most birds have hollow bones compared to ours, which are thicker and heavier. Hollow bones make for a lighter skeleton, which is essential if you intend to get off the ground. Penguins are the exception, but their chunky little bodies have evolved for swimming, resulting in a very non-birdlike anatomy.Like us, turkeys rely on vision over smell. In fact, turkeys can detect movement from a hundred yards out. And contrary to popular opinion, they are fairly intelligent (unlike many humans). They are keenly aware of their surroundings and can be quite friendly. Even early Europeans commented on the cordiality of the turkeys they encountered when they arrived in the New World. The birds would strut right up and cluck “howdy” just before they were clunked on the head and thrown on the fire.
Turkeys were first domesticated by the Aztecs of Central Mexico who not only bred them but also worshiped them. The ancients relied on their meat, eggs, and feathers, but also believed turkeys were the physical manifestation of one of their gods, Tescatlipoca, and held celebrations in their honor. Once the Spanish clobbered the Aztecs, they loaded their ships with turkeys and sailed back to Spain. The birds were then domesticated throughout Europe. Ironically, the Pilgrims toted the birds back to the New World aboard the Mayflower. These are some well-travelled birds.Ben Franklin was enamored of the turkey. He referred to it as a “bird of courage” and tried to convince his fellow Founding Fathers to adopt it as the symbol for the new U.S. of A. But his contemporaries didn’t share his enthusiasm and instead, nominated the eagle. Wise choice. It’d be hard to kick ass around the world if your national symbol was a gobbler.
And speaking of prowess… Turkeys and humans also share many similarities in their courtship rituals. Their males, like ours, puff themselves up so they appear bigger and stronger. They prance around, grunting and vibrating their bodies in order to entice the hens. And this can go on for some time until the female finally grows bored and submits (sometimes it’s simply easier). The males will also mate with multiple females, if given the opportunity. Turkeys, like men, rarely turn down a chance of tail.So enjoy those turkey leftovers. As you munch your turkey sandwich or slurp your turkey soup, take a moment to appreciate this magnificent bird. But before you chuck the carcass, think of the long history that brought this bird to your table and how each of our bodies tells its own evolutionary tale.