Thursday, November 26, 2009

From Promiscuous to Palatable, the Making of a Thanksgiving Day Entree

For the truth the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America... he is besides, though a little vain & 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.” (Benjamin Franklin, 1784)

As demonstrated by the above quote, Benjamin Franklin admired the turkey for its courage, and although the bird may have been somewhat “vain and silly,” in his evaluation it would have served as a better emblem for the newly constituted United States than does the bald eagle, which Franklin would describe in the same transcript as “a bird of bad moral character” and as one that “does not get his living honestly.”

In reflecting on Franklin’s impeachment of the eagle’s morality, it becomes blatantly apparent that his basis for turkey endorsement was not derived from the appraising of the two birds’ sexual fidelity or familial loyalty. If Franklin would have objectively weighed the family values displayed by the bald eagle against those shown by the turkey, he would have undoubtedly praised the eagle for its habit of committing to more-or-less monogamous relationships, and he would have scorned the turkey’s shameless and promiscuous lifestyle.

Despite Franklin’s misinformed backing, the mate-choosing habits of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) have long been known to diverge from those standards held by the majority of human cultures. Turkeys are sexually dimorphic with the seemingly arrogant males of the species being substantially larger than the females and displaying a showy, red-colored head and neck. Vulgarly hanging from the head of the beastly male are fleshy folds of skin called ‘wattles’ that are composed of erectile tissue that can be engulfed by blood to signal agitation or arousal. Changes in the size and color of wattles can be paraded in combination with raised feathers and loud boisterous calls (i.e. gobble, gobble) to signal potential mates or to intimidate rivals.

Furthermore, in contrast to the typically monogamous bald eagle, turkeys commonly practice polygyny; this means that a single dominant and territorial male will guard a harem of hens. However in some cases, particularly when local populations become over-crowded, small licentious groups of roving males may share a territory – though, of course, they’ll still scrap for female access.

Through mating with multiple females, and guarding those females from rivals, male turkeys, being insensitive to the reproductive aspirations of others, selfishly increase the number of offspring in the population that bear their genes - said differently, their genes experience greater frequency in the gene pool. Genes are also important to the self-indulgent female turkey.

The male’s propensity to mate with multiple females means that he has little time to contribute towards the proper rearing of young, or to providing any type of direct benefit to the female. Not foreseeing any direct benefits herself, the female turkey grants sexual access to those males with the best and brightest displays. In addition to wattles and the red-colored face and neck mentioned above, male turkeys flaunt feathers with red, green, gold and iridescent coloration. The overall brilliance of the male’s colors provides the female with clues as to his health and genetic makeup.

Despite the dominant male’s watch, the female turkey - far from being chaste herself - also strives to maximize the occurrence of her genes in the population. Like the male turkey, she’ll mate with multiple partners. To illustrate the female’s wanton ways even more, consider that in a study conducted by Berkeley’s Alan Krakauer about 45% of turkey nests sampled during a study of the turkey’s genetic reach were found to contain eggs derived from multiple parentages. The genetically sampled broods contained not only eggs from multiple males, they also were found to contain the eggs from multiple females!

Even beyond the female turkey’s flagrant granting of sexual access to multiple males, the California study revealed that females practiced a quasi nest-parasitism during which they would mate with the father of a neighbor hen’s clutch, and then lay the eggs from that clandestine joining in the nest of the neighbor – leaving the ‘cheated spouse’ to care for the young born of her rouge and mischievous mate’s digressions.

In light of Benjamin Franklin’s personification of the turkey as a “respectable bird,” it becomes difficult to comprehend the process that he undertook in achieving his conclusions of 1784… Unless of course in addition to his many other famous accolades, Franklin also happened to be a knowledgeable naturalist. Perhaps he wasn’t making a statement about the turkey’s morals and ethics; maybe he was making a statement about the bird’s fecundity…

Or, as yet another possibility, perhaps the vain, silly and promiscuous turkey holds more commonality with the citizenship than we care to admit…

KRAKAUER, A. (2008). SEXUAL SELECTION AND THE GENETIC MATING SYSTEM OF WILD TURKEYS The Condor, 110 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1525/cond.2008.110.1.1