Our holiday bird is making its last stand.

Long after the leftovers are gone, one turkey part still remains in my kitchen; a drying wishbone awaits its destiny.

The wishbone, anatomically speaking, is called a furcula. A furcula is defined as U or Y-shaped bone occurring in most birds and a few other species. A limited number of avian species, including some owls, toucans and parrots, among others, lack this peculiar part.

Some insects also have a furcula, especially springtails, which have one on their tail end and use it for jumping. Interestingly, certain dinosaurs in the therapod (meaning ‘breast-footed’) group, which include velociraptors and Tyrannosaurus rex, had a similar structural support that gave rise to the belief that birds descended from dinosaurs.

This bifurcated bone serves a few functions in birds. Connecting the two clavicles, the furcula strengthens the birds’ thoracic skeleton. This support helps the bird withstand the rigors of flight by lifting the bird’s wings during the flight recovery stoke. It also provides spring in the pectoral girdle when flying. Recent research with starlings also indicates that the furcula may play a role in respiration.

Furcula is Latin for “little fork,” but is by no means the only term to describe the wishbone. It has also been referred to as the Thanksgiving bone, lucky bone, pulley bone in the South, and fourchette, the French word for fork. 

The term wishbone first came into use in the 1850s in America. The English word, merrythought, preceded the term and was common until the 1900s in this country. Merrythought seems sweet and innocent enough until you dig deeper into the word’s history.

While merry means pleasant, it also has another historic connotation, this one more suggestive. John Aubrey, a 17th-century British philosopher and author, wrote a book on folklore that explained “‘Tis called the merrythought, because when the fowle is opened, dissected, or carv’d, it resembles the pudenda of a woman.”

Tradition has it that this bone is the bearer of good luck and wishes come true. We all know the drill; each person gets a side and pulls. The one with the larger piece will get his wish. But did you know that the winner could also transfer the wish to another?

Earlier beliefs provide other benefits to the holder of the largest piece of the wishbone, including the honor of first to marry. Luck was also to be bestowed by this bone, and gilded wishbones were part of many bride-to-be luncheons or attached to the bridal bouquet. The unbroken bone was believed to be able to divine the future by the Etruscans, and predict weather in 15th century Europe.

From the succulent to the divine, the wishbone has a lively history. Its two prongs could well stand for ritual and superstition, which have survived the centuries remarkably linked and intact. With such longevity, there is no reason to ‘break’ from tradition. Just close your eyes and make a wish. 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.