Go Ahead & Break That Wishbone

All, Stories
Three ducks and two turkeys intermingle in a pen at Parky's Farm in Winton Woods.

As a Brit, I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until I moved to America about 20 years ago and oh my goodness, what a holiday to miss out on! Our family dove headfirst into enjoying parades, pies and turkeys in the crisp fall air. We gave our thanks, made those hand turkey things, and even tried throwing an American football! (That didn’t last long.) There was also one other thing we adopted, and still do to this day, which is the tradition of breaking the turkey wishbone. I’m writing this blog because over the years I’ve noticed something a little concerning. Every time I ask kids if they have broken a wishbone during my raptor programs, I see fewer and fewer hands go up. We cannot let the wishbone tradition die! Here is why.

If you take your kids to the Cincinnati Museum Center over the holiday weekend, you will see all kinds of awesome dinosaurs. Torvosaurus, Allasaurus, and Tyrannosaurus rex all tower above you.

A young girl poses in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil at Cincinnati Museum Center.

You can interact with the displays by pressing a laser pointer, which will point toward a bone and give you information. If you press the pointer to the Torvosaurus, it will reveal something quite astounding: The apex predator of the late Jurassic has a wishbone!

Looking up at the neck bones of a dinosaur fossil at Cincinnati Museum Center.

The same bone we snap on Thanksgiving is one of the structures that birds from turkeys to hawks have in common with dinosaurs. The others being feathers, hinge-like ankle joints, eggshell structures and more.

How cool is that! When we snap the wishbone of a turkey, most of us are unknowingly connected to 250 million years of dinosaur evolution.

Gandalf, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) sits on a nature interpreter's arm.
Gandalf the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is neither grey nor white like the wizard she was named after.

For modern day birds, the wishbone acts as a support structure for flying. As the birds flap their wings, the furcula (a fancy word for wishbone) acts like a spring that eases the strain on the bird’s muscles. This is why one of our raptors, Gandalf the red-tailed hawk, is now an animal ambassador. She was hit by a car and broke her wishbone, and since it didn’t heal correctly, she can’t sustain long periods of flight. But don’t worry, she enjoys being an ambassador for her species to teach park guests about raptors and hawks.

I could not find much literature on the purpose of a furcula for flightless dinosaurs, but according to an article on avian flight by University of California, Berkeley, it could have acted as a brace when grasping their prey.

This is why I say go forth and break that wishbone with your family! Bask in the importance to natural history this otherwise-unassuming, funny-shaped bone holds to scientists and nature enthusiasts alike. Even if your family is vegetarian, I say mold a furcula out of clay, plaster of paris, or even 3D print one if possible, and continue on a tradition I hold so dear.

Tom Hughes
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods