How do turkeys make their signature “gobble, gobble” sound? Guest author Eva decided to explore this topic with her kids and ended up learning a lot about how vibration makes sound. This Turkey Gobble activity brings some Thanksgiving science and STEM learning to your fall festivities! Making butter is another way to bring science into this time of year.
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Thanksgiving Science for Kids: How do Turkeys Make a “Gobble, Gobble” Sound
Turkeys are one of the most famous birds in North America. They are associated with holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they are well-known for their large, fan-like tail, fleshy red wattles, and the famous “gobble, gobble” sound. But there are some facts about turkeys you might not know about.
Do All Turkeys Gobble?
Only male turkeys (or toms) “gobble.” They mainly make the sound in spring and fall to attract a partner (or partners) and to deter other toms. Watch how the turkeys interact with this expert turkey imitator:
Occasionally turkeys “gobble” when settling down for the night (akin to when you stretch on your bed at night and say “aaaah”).
What Does a Turkey Sound Like?
“Gobble” is only one of thirty different calls that turkeys can produce. Turkeys make noise very similarly to how wind instruments make noise.
Wind instruments usually contain a tube. When a player blows into (or over) an opening at one end of the instrument, a column of air (inside the tube) vibrates, making sounds.
Similarly, a turkey voice is produced by air flowing through its vocal organ shaped like a tube. This part of the turkey is called the syrinx. As the air is passing through the syrinx, it increases the pressure between external and internal membranes, and we hear “a throaty jumble of sounds that lasts 1 second.”
In other words, this “gobble, gobble” sound is the result of a rapidly moving column of air, membrane vibration, and the air pressure inside the turkey’s vocal organ.
Thanksgiving Science for Kids: Exploring That Turkey Gobble Sound
We decided that it would be fun to explore the science of that turkey gobble sound using common household items.
The first step? Look for tube-shaped objects around the house.
We gathered toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, and drinking straws. But that was just the start. When we looked in our craft cabinet, we discovered that our ribbons were wrapped around a cardboard tube. And when my kids peeked in their toy box, they discovered that Marble Run Track comes with lots of tube-shaped pieces.
We often start our experiments with predictions. So I asked the kids:
What might happen when we blow air into our tubes? Will we hear a sound? What kind of sound?
Well, as you can probably guess, we didn’t get much sound. There were a lot of blowing sounds, of course, some loud huffing and puffing, a lot of laughing and snorting, and a few exasperated sighs. But nothing musical or notable.
After this bit of free exploration was over, I walked my kids again through the turkey sound production and asked them to think about what we might be missing.
That’s when one of my kids remembered the membrane. Of course! Membrane vibration is an important part of sound production. We needed to add a membrane to our tubes.
When we looked at our supplies, it became clear that we were making a DIY membranophone.
A membranophone is a musical instrument that produces sound from a vibrating stretched membrane, like drums, gongs, or kazoo.
Do you want to make your own membranophone? All you need is a paper roll (or other tube-shaped object), wax paper (in place of a membrane), and a rubber band (to hold it together).
How to Make a Membranophone to Mimic a Turkey Gobble
Membranophones are really fun to make and play with. Make one with us today with the goal of making a sound in a new way. Anyone can play it without practice. You can even learn to hum songs like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star with your membranophone.
- Tube-shaped objects from around the house. We had the best luck with a tube from ribbons and a toilet paper roll
- Wax paper (It worked much better than parchment paper. If you are interested, you can set it up as an experiment with plastic wrap, wax paper, parchment paper, and ordinary paper to determine, which one makes the best sound).
- Rubber Bands
- Something pointy to poke or cut holes in the tube. We had luck with pointy scissors and a stitching needle.
- Optional: a paint and brush for decorating
Membranophone Craft Directions
Take a small piece of wax paper and place it over one end of the paper roll. Use a rubber band to fasten it down. Note: don’t place the rubber band too close to the end. You need enough vibration to make a good sound.
Repeat this with a few more rolls so that you can do some experimentation.
Place your mouth directly over the other end (opposite from the wax paper) and blow air. Anything? Now try humming. What do you think of your sound?
4. Now you’re going to grab a needle and make some holes. Here are some options for you:
- Lay a paper roll flat on the table and make one hole on one side of the toilet paper roll.
- Lay a paper roll flat on the table and make three holes vertically on one side of the toilet paper roll. (hint: more holes means that more air escapes the tube)
- Poke a few holes in the wax paper.
Ask kids which variable we are exploring here by making a variety of openings in different locations.
How to Play Your Membranophone
Place your mouth directly over the other end and hum. We discovered that we produced the most interesting sounds not by blowing air, but by humming or repeating silly syllables. “Boo-boo-boo,” “poo-poo-poo,” and “doo-doo-doo” were everyone’s favorites. “Rrrrrr” and “brrrrr” also worked nicely. My six-year-old had the best time with dinosaur and car sounds.
- (optional) Decorate your membranophone with paints, crayons, and stickers.
Don’t forget to share your observations with each other.
- What happens when you hum in the tube?
- Why does your voice sound so different?
- How does poking holes in the tube affect the sound?
The Science Behind Your Membranophone – and Why It Doesn’t Really Sound Like a Turkey
What causes sound? The sound you hear is the result of vibration. What causes vibration? Your voice. When you hum, your voice vibrates the wax paper membrane.
Why can’t you make a “gobble, gobble” sound like a turkey? Even though our membranophone employs the same idea, the real turkey is much more complicated than our DIY instrument.
The syrinx, a turkey’s vocal organ, is actually more of a Y-shaped tube, while we used straight tubes for our membranophones. Turkeys also have internal and external membranes that vibrate at the same time from the air pressure inside the bird’s syrinx. Turkeys move between different vocalizations by changing the pressure or force inside the syrinx.
Why use wax paper? Wax paper is a substitute for a membrane in this experiment.
A homemade membranophone is a great way to explore sound vibration. Acoustics is a branch of physics that studies vibration and sound.
The Gross Anatomy of the Syrinx of the Turkey, International Journal of Advanced Research in Biological Sciences, Vol.3, Issue 6 – 2016
Voice Production by the Turkey, Poultry Science, Volume 47, Issue 4, July 1968, Pages 1101-1105 (PDF)
Wild Turkey Sounds, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/sounds
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