The Unexpected Link Between NFL Players and Turkeys

The Unexpected Link Between NFL Players and Turkeys

Why you should care

Turkeys are more than just a meal.  

Since there’s little more American than knock-knock jokes and football, we’ve got a riddle for you this holiday: A turkey and Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Phillip Dorsett cross the road. Who gets to the other side first? (Hint: It goes gobble gobble.)

That’s right, a wild turkey would beat the league’s fastest wide receiver in a street race.

Sorry, Dorsett, no end-zone jiggle for you this Thanksgiving. Turns out, turkeys have reason to puff those candescent chests and wag those feathery backsides: The scrawny-legged things clock a top speed of 25 mph. Bet you didn’t know turkeys can fly, either. They don’t go much farther than the length of a football field, but on the occasion that they do flap their wings, they can hit up to 55 mph. With the league’s fastest sprint so far this season, the rookie Dorsett barely broke 23.5 mph, according to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats. I know, it’s almost embarrassing — especially when you consider that male turkeys rarely grow taller than 3 feet and Dorsett is 5-foot-9.

But what they lack in vertical prowess, turkeys make up for in genetics. The birds have razor-thin but muscular legs that swing quickly, firm joints that forgo flexibility for endurance and pointed digits that allow them to walk on their toes, unlike us feeble humans who have to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground. Although longer stems can reach farther, when the leg muscle is closer to the body, as it is for a bird, the limb swings faster, “in the same way that moving the adjustable weight of a metronome closer to the pivot increases the tempo,” avian biologist Nina Schaller writes. Turkeys, which Benjamin Franklin once advocated to be the national bird, also spend 99.9 percent of their lives standing, so they’ve evolved to resemble a small hoofed animal.

On the other hand, domesticated fowl, like the kind that appear on your plate, are more like offensive linemen — pudgy and slow. Over generations, they’ve been fattened up and bred to have larger breasts to meet the demand for white meat, says birding expert Melissa Mayntz. It’s reached the point now that their bodies are too big for their scrawny legs, making them unable to fly or sprint. Indulging to the point of destruction — what better symbol for a holiday of gratitude?

Yet while domesticated turkeys have a much more limited number of days, their wild brethren live an average of 10 years, which also beats out the length of most NFL players’ careers. Who’s giving thanks now?

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