Turkey (bird)
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Turkey Bird

Temporal range: 23-0 Ma
Early Miocene - Recent
Wild turkey eastern us.jpg
Wild turkey
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Phasianidae
Subfamily: Meleagridinae
Genus: Meleagris
Linnaeus, 1758
Egg of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) - MHNT

The turkey is a large bird in the genus Meleagris, which is native to the Americas. Males of both turkey species have a distinctive fleshy wattle or protuberance that hangs from the top of the beak (called a snood). They are among the largest birds in their ranges. As in many galliformes, the male is larger and much more colorful than the female.


Turkeys are classed in the family of Phasianidae (pheasants, partridges, francolins, junglefowl, grouse, and relatives thereof) in the taxonomic order of Galliformes.[1] The genus Meleagris is the only extant genus in the subfamily Meleagridinae, formerly known as the family Meleagrididae, but now subsumed within the family Phasianidae.

Extant species

Image Scientific name Common Name Distribution
Wild turkey Point Pelee NP 2014.jpg Meleagris gallopavo domestic turkey or wild turkey forests of North America, from Mexico (where they were first domesticated by the Mayans)[2] throughout the midwest and eastern United States, and into southeastern Canada
Meleagris ocellata -Guatemala-8a.jpg Meleagris ocellata ocellated turkey forests of the Yucatán Peninsula[3]

Fossil forms

Scientific name Common Name Distribution
Meleagris californica Californian turkey southern California

History and naming

Plate 1 of The Birds of America by John James Audubon, depicting a wild turkey

Turkeys were domesticated in ancient Mexico, for food and/or for their cultural and symbolic significance.[4] The Aztecs, for example, had a name for the turkey, wueh-x?l?-tl (guajolote in Spanish), a word still used in modern Mexico in addition to the general term pavo. Spanish chroniclers, including Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Father Bernardino de Sahagun, describe the multitude of food (both raw fruits and vegetables as well as prepared dishes) that were offered in the vast markets (tianguis) of Tenochtitlán, noting there were tamales made of turkey, iguana, chocolate, vegetables, fruit, and more. The ancient people of Mexico had not only domesticated the turkey but had apparently developed sophisticated recipes including these ingredients--many used to this day--over hundreds of years.

There are two theories for the derivation of the name "turkey", according to Columbia University professor of Romance languages Mario Pei.[5] One theory is that when Europeans first encountered turkeys in America, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl, which were already being imported into Europe by Turkey merchants via Constantinople and were therefore nicknamed Turkey coqs. The name of the North American bird thus became "turkey fowl" or "Indian turkeys", which was then shortened to just "turkeys".[5][6][7]

A second theory arises from turkeys coming to England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships from the Middle East, where they were domesticated successfully. Again the importers lent the name to the bird; Middle Eastern merchants were called "Turkey merchants" as much of that area was part of the Ottoman Empire. Hence the name "Turkey-cocks" and "Turkey-hens", and soon thereafter, "turkeys".[5][8]

In 1550, the English navigator William Strickland, who had introduced the turkey into England, was granted a coat of arms including a "turkey-cock in his pride proper".[9]William Shakespeare used the term in Twelfth Night,[10] believed to be written in 1601 or 1602. The lack of context around his usage suggests that the term was already widespread .[]

Other countries have other names for turkeys. Many of these names incorporate an assumed Indian origin, such as dinde ("from India") in French, ? (indyushka) ("bird of India") in Russia, indyk in Poland, and Hindi ("India") in Turkey. These are thought to arise from the supposed belief of Christopher Columbus that he had reached India rather than the Americas on his voyage.[5] In Portuguese a turkey is a peru; the name is thought to derive from the eponymous country Peru.[11]

Several other birds that are sometimes called turkeys are not particularly closely related: the brushturkeys are megapodes, and the bird sometimes known as the "Australian turkey" is the Australian bustard (Ardeotis australis). The anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) is sometimes called a water turkey, from the shape of its tail when the feathers are fully spread for drying.

An infant turkey is called a "chick" or "poult".

Human conflicts with wild turkeys

Turkeys have been known to be aggressive toward humans and pets in residential areas.[12] Wild turkeys have a social structure and pecking order and habituated turkeys may respond to humans and animals as they do to another turkey. Habituated turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates.[13]

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, recommends that citizens be aggressive toward the turkeys, take a step towards them, and not back down. Brookline officials have also recommended "making noise (clanging pots or other objects together); popping open an umbrella; shouting and waving your arms; squirting them with a hose; allowing your leashed dog to bark at them; and forcefully fending them off with a broom."[14]

Fossil record

Male ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata

A number of turkeys have been described from fossils. The Meleagridinae are known from the Early Miocene (c. 23 mya) onwards, with the extinct genera Rhegminornis (Early Miocene of Bell, U.S.) and Proagriocharis (Kimball Late Miocene/Early Pliocene of Lime Creek, U.S.). The former is probably a basal turkey, the other a more contemporary bird not very similar to known turkeys; both were much smaller birds. A turkey fossil not assignable to genus but similar to Meleagris is known from the Late Miocene of Westmoreland County, Virginia.[3] In the modern genus Meleagris, a considerable number of species have been described, as turkey fossils are robust and fairly often found, and turkeys show great variation among individuals. Many of these supposed fossilized species are now considered junior synonyms. One, the well-documented California turkey Meleagris californica,[15] became extinct recently enough to have been hunted by early human settlers.[16] It has been suggested that its demise was due to the combined pressures of human hunting and climate change at the end of the last glacial period.[17]

The Oligocene fossil Meleagris antiquus was first described by Othniel Charles Marsh in 1871. It has since been reassigned to the genus Paracrax, first interpreted as a cracid, then soon after as a bathornithid Cariamiformes.


  • Meleagris sp. (Early Pliocene of Bone Valley, U.S.)
  • Meleagris sp. (Late Pliocene of Macasphalt Shell Pit, U.S.)
  • Meleagris californica (Late Pleistocene of SW U.S.)--formerly Parapavo/Pavo
  • Meleagris crassipes (Late Pleistocene of SW North America)

Turkeys have been considered by many authorities to be their own family--the Meleagrididae--but a recent genomic analysis of a retrotransposon marker groups turkeys in the family Phasianidae.[18] In 2010, a team of scientists published a draft sequence of the domestic turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) genome.[19]

Use by humans

A roast turkey surrounded by Christmas log cake, gravy, sparkling juice, and vegetables

The species Meleagris gallopavo is used by humans for their meat. They were first domesticated by the indigenous people of Mexico from at least 800 BC onwards. These domesticates were then either introduced into what is now the US Southwest or independently domesticated a second time by the indigenous people of that region by 200 BC, at first being used for their feathers, which were used in ceremonies and to make robes and blankets.[20] Turkeys were first used for meat by Native Americans by about AD 1100.[20] Compared to wild turkeys, domestic turkeys are selectively bred to grow larger in size for their meat.[21][22] Americans often eat turkey on special occasions such as at Thanksgiving or Christmas.[23][24]

The Norfolk turkeys

In her written memoirs Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826-1913)[25] recalls that her great-grandfather Horatio Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1723-1809), imported a quantity of American turkeys[25] which were kept in the woods around Wolterton Hall and in all probability were the embryo flock for the popular Norfolk turkey breeds of today.



  1. ^ Crowe, Timothy M.; Bloomer, Paulette; Randi, Ettore; Lucchini, Vittorio; Kimball, Rebecca T.; Braun, Edward L. & Groth, Jeffrey G. (2006a): Supra-generic cladistics of landfowl (Order Galliformes). Acta Zoologica Sinica 52(Supplement): 358-361. PDF fulltext
  2. ^ "Earliest use of Mexican turkeys by ancient Maya". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 2017.
  3. ^ a b Farner, Donald Stanley & King, James R. (1971). Avian biology. Boston: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-249408-6.
  4. ^ Nield, David. "Study Shows That Humans Domesticated Turkeys For Worshipping, Not Eating". sciencealert.com.
  5. ^ a b c d Krulwich, Robert (27 November 2008). "Why A Turkey Is Called A Turkey". NPR. Retrieved 2016.
  6. ^ Webster's II New College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2005, ISBN 978-0-618-39601-6, p. 1217
  7. ^ Smith, Andrew F. (2006) The Turkey: An American Story. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03163-2. p. 17
  8. ^ "The flight of the turkey". The Economist. 20 December 2014. Retrieved 2014.
  9. ^ Boehrer, Bruce Thomas (2011). Animal characters: nonhuman beings in early modern literature. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 141. ISBN 0812201361.
  10. ^ Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 5 No Fear Shakespeare
  11. ^ Dicionário Priberam da Lingua Portuguesa, "peru".
  12. ^ Annear, Steve (24 April 2017). "MassWildlife warns of turkey encounters". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2017.
  13. ^ "Preventing Conflicts with Wild Turkeys". Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved 2017.
  14. ^ Sweeney, Emily (25 August 2017). "Don't let aggressive turkeys bully you, Brookline advises residents". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2017.
  15. ^ Formerly Parapavo californica and initially described as Pavo californica or "California peacock"
  16. ^ Broughton, Jack (1999). Resource depression and intensification during the late Holocene, San Francisco Bay: evidence from the Emeryville Shellmound vertebrate fauna. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-09828-2.; lay summary
  17. ^ Bochenski, Z. M., and K. E. Campbell, Jr. (2006). The extinct California Turkey, Meleagris californica, from Rancho La Brea: Comparative osteology and systematics. Contributions in Science, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Number 509.
  18. ^ Jan, K.; Andreas, M.; Gennady, C.; Andrej, K.; Gerald, M.; Jürgen, B.; Jürgen, S. (2007). "Waves of genomic hitchhikers shed light on the evolution of gamebirds (Aves: Galliformes)". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 7: 190. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-190. PMC 2169234. PMID 17925025. Archived from the original on 15 October 2008. Retrieved 2008.
  19. ^ Dalloul, R. A.; Long, J. A.; Zimin, A. V.; Aslam, L.; Beal, K.; Blomberg Le, L.; Bouffard, P.; Burt, D. W.; Crasta, O.; Crooijmans, R. P.; Cooper, K.; Coulombe, R. A.; De, S.; Delany, M. E.; Dodgson, J. B.; Dong, J. J.; Evans, C.; Frederickson, K. M.; Flicek, P.; Florea, L.; Folkerts, O.; Groenen, M. A.; Harkins, T. T.; Herrero, J.; Hoffmann, S.; Megens, H. J.; Jiang, A.; De Jong, P.; Kaiser, P.; Kim, H. (2010). Roberts, Richard J (ed.). "Multi-Platform Next-Generation Sequencing of the Domestic Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo): Genome Assembly and Analysis". PLoS Biology. 8 (9): e1000475. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000475. PMC 2935454. PMID 20838655.
  20. ^ a b "Native Americans First Tamed Turkeys 2,000 Years Ago". Seeker (Discovery News). Retrieved 2017.
  21. ^ "Amazing Facts About Turkey". OneKind. Retrieved 2015.
  22. ^ "My Life as a Turkey - Domesticated versus Wild Graphic". PBS. Retrieved 2015.
  23. ^ "Why do we eat turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas?". Slate. 25 November 2009. Retrieved 2015.
  24. ^ "Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?". Wonderopolis. Retrieved 2015.
  25. ^ a b Nevill, Lady Dorothy (1894). Mannington and the Walpoles, Earls of Orford. With ten illustrations of Mannington Hall, Norfolk (PDF). Reference to the Sinecure and to the Turkeys. Fine Art Society. p. 22.

External links

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