Bird Bones

One of the important ways that we learn about anatomy is by dissection. The word "dissection: may make you think of dead frogs in bottles of preservative, but you probably dissect things frequently. You just don't think of it as dissection. Instead, you think of it as dinner.

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You will need:

  • a cooked chicken, turkey, or other bird
  • a sharp knife
  • a pictures or models of human and other animal skeleton

In spite of the great differences between a person and a turkey (no comments, please!), there are many things about their skeleton that are similar. First, you need to remove the meat from the bones. If you had turkey or chicken for supper, you have probably already done that. If not, then you have an excuse to have chicken for dinner. It does not matter if it is all in one piece or cut up into parts. It tastes the same either way, and we can still examine the bones.

First, lets look at the bones in the wing. Do you have wings? No, but you have arms, which have very similar bones. In the upper part of the wing, there is a single bone. The same is true for your arm. That bone is called the humerus. Could that have something to do with hitting your funny bone? The next part of the wing has two bones, side by side. These bones are called the radius and the ulna. You also have a radius and ulna in your arm, between your elbow and your wrist. If the bones of the wing are still all attached, flex the wing to see how the joint (elbow) works. As you move on down the wing, things start to look very different. The wrist and finger bones are very small and many of them are missing. That is just as well, as fingers would not work well in the middle of a wing during flight.

Looking at the legs, we see the same pattern. The thigh has a single bone, which is called the femur. In a human, this is the largest bone in your body, but in most birds, it is not. Moving down the leg, we come to what many people call the drumstick, which is actually the lower leg, between the knee and the ankle. In a human, there are again two bones, the tibia and the fibula. At first, it seems that the turkey only has one bone, which is the tibia. The fibula is small and very thin, almost needle like. It is easy to miss, especially in chickens. Usually, a bird that has been prepared for cooking ends here, but if you had the rest, you would find the ankle bones were very long, lengthening the bird's legs.

The backbone, or spine, of a turkey is very similar to ours. It is made up of many individual bones, called vertebra. They fit together to support the body while letting it bend and turn. They also protect a large nerve, called the spinal cord. Attached to the vertebrae are the ribs. These long, thin bones stretch from the spine around to the sternum or breastbone. On humans, the sternum is flat, but on birds, it sticks out in a big ridge. This is very important for the bird, because this is where the wing muscles attach. The larger this bone is, the larger the wing muscles can be. This explains part of why we can't just tie wings to our arms and fly. Our sternum is too flat and the muscles that work our arms are too small to move them with enough speed and strength.

If you have not eaten your turkey or chicken yet, you can continue your anatomy lesson by examining the muscles that are connected to the bone, as well as the heart, liver, gizzard and kidneys. These organs are usually still with the bird, as they are quite tasty. The kidneys are usually still attached to the inside of the backbone, while the other organs are usually inside a package with the bird. You can dissect them before you cook them or afterwards.