The aerodynamics of a turkey

Like other terrestrial fowl, Meleagris gallopavo, better known as the common North American turkey, lives most of its life near the ground (and, at the very end, upon a dinner plate). Turkeys are commonly considered in popular rhetoric to be flightless, but wild turkeys can, indeed, sustain short bursts of airborne activity.

The wings of turkeys both wild and domesticated are highly cambered, which means that they demonstrate appreciable curvature from the leading edge to the trailing feathers. Such curvature is well-suited for near-the-ground situations in which the bird needs a great deal of lift in a short period of time. Quick bursts of high-lift activity allow it to escape its predators, chief among which are coyotes, wolves, and marauding herds of just-arrived Puritans whose fares to the New World did not include an onboard snack.

Anyone who has traveled by air and sat above the wing has seen camber in action. A commercial airliner employs what are known as high-lift devices to generate the force necessary to lift the aircraft off the runway or gently set it back down upon landing. Flaps on a wing’s trailing edge and slats on its leading edge extend at takeoff and landing to increase camber, which gives the airplane more turkey-like performance.

Flaps and slats are retracted at cruising altitudes, where less power is required to maintain airspeed velocity, more akin to such high-performance migratory birds as the unladen European swallow. Were an aircraft to retain its turkey-esque high-lift configuration for the duration of its flight, it would waste a tremendous volume of fuel. Powerful it may be, but it’s not at all efficient.

Thus, we may think of the wild turkey as akin to a 747 in a takeoff or landing configuration: well-suited for the relatively brief period in which tremendous power is needed near the ground, but completely useless for sustained flight. In those short bursts, however, a wild turkey can achieve speeds approaching 50 miles per hour (80 km/h).

Unlike wild turkeys, domesticated turkeys generally cannot fly because the capability has been bred right out of them. Poultry farmers, seeking birds that yield ever more meat in the thighs and breasts, have selected for turkeys that simply weigh more than their wings can support. What’s good for dinner is less desirable for flight.

Whether you enjoy turkey, tofu, tabbouleh, or tripe this holiday season, CPP wishes a safe and happy Thanksgiving to our friends in the United States and around the world.