Thursday, November 4, 2010

This turkey is "staying alive"

November is here, so it's time to talk turkey. Turkey adaptations that is. Adaptations are physical or behavioral characteristics that plants or animals have to help them survive. But have you ever wondered how to make learning about adaptations fun for kids? Here's the answer: a quick and fun lesson on how the adaptations of wild turkeys help them stay alive!
This is an Eastern subspecies wild turkey...not to be confused
with the domestic turkey that graces most tables at Thanksgiving.
Photo by John Ford and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
This is a fun, hands-on activity...and now is the perfect time of year for it! Not only are your (and your students) probably starting to dream of all the goodies including the star player TURKEY on your Thanksgiving tables later this month, but many of the materials needed for this activity can be picked up at a bargain price now that Halloween supplies are on clearance this week!

This photo of a flock of Eastern Wild Turkeys was taken by Henry Zeman.
Courtesy of the National Wild Turkey Federation.

The following lesson is from the book Wild About Turkeys by the National Wild Turkey Federation.


  1. Start of by telling students they'll be learning about ADAPTATIONS. In fact, adaptations are so special that every time you say the word "ADAPTATIONS" students should wiggle their thumbs. 
  2. Define ADAPTATIONS and why we talk about them.
  3. Ask for a volunteer. Ask the other students if the volunteer could survive as a turkey in the wild. Nope...not without some wild turkey ADAPTATIONS. (Don't forget to wiggle those thumbs!)
  4. Now is the time to go through you ADAPTATION box and briefly describe how each of those items would help a wild turkey while you dress the volunteer with their new ADAPTATIONS. What's in your box? Here are some ideas:
  • Feathers: Use a down vest. Feathers help turkeys stay toasty warm. Their normal body temperature is 108 degrees! You can also use a camouflage jacket. The colors help turkeys hide from predators
  •  Tail feathers: Bright and colorful will do the trick! For males, these feathers help in strutting and make the female turkeys agree to a date!
  • Beard: Hit the Halloween clearance aisle and grab a costume beard. Turkey beards are a good indicator of gender and age.
  • Multi-colored head: A tri-colored bicycle helmet is a good bet for this one. The red, white and blue on turkeys' heads is a form of communication for the birds.
  • Carunkles:  Use a red neck tie. Turkeys can change the carunkles size and color to communicate as well.
  • Snood: This is as easy as a red balloon.Turkeys can change the size and color of their snood to communicate with each other and also to help regulate body temperature.
  • Beak: Here's another chance to take advantage of that Halloween clearance aisle by snagging a costume beak. Turkeys use their beak to catch food, and it's small, stout shape is perfect for the kind of food they eat. Can you imagine what a turkey would look like if it had a beak like a toucan? Ask students if they think turkeys can chew and if they have teeth.
  • Gizzard or Crop: A cheese grater is a "grate" replica of the small stones that are located in the crop and that grind up the bird's food.
  • Spurs: Cowboy spurs can be used to show how male turkeys use their spurs to fight other males. The best fighter gets the girl! Males sometimes also use their spurs as protection from predators.
  • Long toes: Plastic garden cultivator tools can show how turkeys use their feet to scratch the ground and dig up acorns, chufa, grasshoppers, worms and more.
  • Fast running: Jogging shoes make a nice visual. Did you know turkeys can run about 19 miles per hour?
  • Bones: PVC pipes or dryer vents can show how turkey bones are very light...in fact, they are almost hollow. Turkeys can fly about 55 miles per hour at top speed!
  • Eyesight: Time to hit the Halloween aisle again for some googley glasses. A turkey's best defense is good eyesight, and turkeys can in fact see in color.
  • Strutting: One more thing turkeys do to get a date! Male turkeys do this to impress the ladies. Have your volunteer strut or dance whil playing "Staying Alive." 
Have the students vote as to whether or not they now think their volunteer's ADAPTATIONS are enough to stay alive as a wild turkey. Older students may be asked to think about their favorite animal and identify a few of that animal's ADAPTATIONS to share with the class. And what about our ADAPTATIONS as people?
Photo by Maslowski & the National Wild Turkey Federation
 Wonder why the students wiggled their thumbs every time the word ADAPTATION was mentioned? Try this experiment. Tape thumbs down to the rest of the students' hands and ask them to try everyday tasks like buttoning, zipping, getting a glass of water, writing their name, etc. Do our thumbs help us stay alive? You bet!

And speaking of adaptations, did you know domestic turkeys have their own set of ADAPTATIONS, too? Today's domestic turkeys are white and are descendents of a no extinct subspecies of wild turkeys. They are bleived to have been domesticated by Native Americans in Mexico between 150 BC and 400 AD. Spanish explorers brought Turkeyes to Spain, and by 1530, domestic turkeys were common throughout Europe. They arrived in the US from England in 1607.

Commercially-raised domestic birds look quite different from their wild relatives as you can see. Their feathers are usually white, which is preferred for the cleaner appearance of the dressed birds. Domestic birds are also so heavy they often have difficulty flying. Their neck skin (wattles) is heaver and their snood is longer. Their temperament is also more suited to confinement.

Domestic male turkeys tend to be vocal and respond with a squeaky gobble to almost any noise. Females use calls similar to their wild counterparts, including the cluck, yelp, cutt, purr and kee-kee.

From 1930 to 1987 when interest began in increasing the American wild turkey population, efforts were made to mate wild and domestic turkeys to increase the populations. However, the resulting offspring were unable to survive in the wilderness, having lost their survival instincts. They were quickly eaten by predators, even if the offspring contained only a small percentage of domestic turkey in their genetic makeup.

Interested in learning more about modern turkey production? Visit our good bloggy friend Katie at On the Banks of Squaw Creek. Her family raises turkeys for a living and their birds feed the processing plant that supplies turkey to all the Subways west of the Mississippi. Katie does regular turkey features and fill you in on all the happenings and yes, sometimes even the heartbreaks, of farm life.

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