The Straight Dope

It took Columbus two months in three leaky ships to reach the Americas and open up a new chapter in exploration. The Russians were less than twenty miles from Alaska (two miles if you count a few islands) and never managed to "discover" America before 1492. Why not?

-- Chris B., Springfield, Oregon

One wants to be fair about this. The reason the Russians didn't discover America prior to 1492 was that eastward expansion of the Russian empire didn't bring them to the Pacific coast until the mid-1600s. However, Russian exploration of points east from then on was no miracle of organization. "In 1648," we read in the Britannica, "a Russian, Semyon Dezhnyov, had sailed through the then-unnamed Bering Strait, but his report went unnoticed until 1736."

By 1700 the native peoples of Siberia had told the Russians about a giant landmass across the water, but this didn't get much of a response either. Moscow was preoccupied with a war against Sweden during this period, and one supposes that discovering new continents ranked low on its list of priorities. By and by, an expedition was organized under the Danish seafarer Vitus Bering. In 1728 Bering established that Russian territory was not connected to the alleged eastern land. However, historians inform us, he failed to discover North America because of fog. One can't help but feel that this was a pretty lame excuse. Sure, one of Bering's goals was to discover a sea route around Siberia to Europe, but still, all he had to do was sail east for a while, and he couldn't miss. (The two continents are actually 55 miles apart, not 20, so maybe that explains it.)

Perhaps recognizing the inadequacy of his previous effort, Bering decided to take another stab at it and in 1741 succeeded in finding Alaska. Soon a prosperous fur trade had sprung up. In 1784 the Russians established a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island off the Alaskan coast and later a territorial capital at Sitka. Meanwhile they abused the natives and depleted the local wildlife, in particular the sea otter, which was rendered nearly extinct. In 1867, figuring they had pretty much wrung Alaska dry, the Russians sold it to the U.S. for $7.2 million and retreated to the fleshpots of Vladivostok. Not the world's most inspiring saga, but put the shoe on the other foot. Suppose North America had been settled first, and we arrived on the Alaskan coast in 1650 to gaze west into the fog. How eager do you think we'd have been to discover Siberia?

They sell chicken, duck, quail, and some other eggs in a lot of stores. Is there a reason I haven't seen turkey eggs being sold? -- Player, via the Internet

Barnyard economics, babe. Turkeys don't lay that many eggs, and the ones they do lay are used to produce more turkeys. The average egg-laying chicken lays 300 or so eggs per year, while the average turkey produces only 100 to 120. Chickens come into production at 19 to 20 weeks of age, but turkeys don't get cranking until 32 weeks. Turkeys are also much larger, averaging 16 to 17 pounds compared to 3.5 pounds for chickens. So you'd need a lot more room for a bird that would take a lot longer to produce a lot fewer eggs.

Another problem is that turkeys go "broody" easily -- they want to sit on their eggs and incubate them. In contrast, egg-producing white leghorn chickens have had the broodiness bred out of them. They lay and lay and have no desire to incubate their offspring or otherwise to be maternal. You want to play in traffic? Fine! Whatever! Now let me go lay some more eggs. Proof that just because you can make a good breakfast doesn't mean you're a good mom.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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