O, peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock
of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!
– Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Here in the United States, we are on the precipice of Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday of November. Traditionally, the protein of choice at feasts and banquets far and wide is turkey. This grandiloquent bird deserves the full article treatment, so what better time to do so than now?
Let’s learn about turkeys!
The scientific nomenclature for the avian we connotatively know as the turkey is Meleagris gallopavo. The Meleagris family includes just two species, the wild turkey to which we are all accustomed, which populates the forests of eastern and central North America, and a cousin called the ocellated turkey, which takes up habitation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
Members of the Phasianidae family, turkeys are distantly related to pheasants, partridges, and grouse. They were first domesticated in Mexico, many, many moons ago. Ancient Aztecs called them wueh-xōlō-tl, a term which persists in contemporary Mexico, in addition to the easier-to-pronounce term pavo. Early European visitors to the region encountered various foods made of turkey in the markets of Tenochtitlan, the largest pre-Columbian city in North America, which was founded in 1325 in what is now Mexico City. Some research shows Mayans had domesticated turkeys far before this point, as well.
So if turkeys originally came from Mexico and North America, why the heck do they share a name with a country that straddles Europe and Asia?
According to Columbia University’s expert on Romance languages, professor Mario Pei, two theories on the etymology proliferate and both could be correct.
Number 1: When the American bird first arrived in England, it didn’t come directly from the new continent. It arrived via merchants quartered in Constantinople, Turkey. The Brits, therefore, referred to the bird as a “Turkey coq.” See Shakespeare above. Apparently, those in England did this sort of etymological gymnastics fairly frequently when the goods came from Turkey. Persian carpets were “Turkish rugs”; Indian flour was “Turkish flour”; Hungarian carpet bags were “Turkish bags.” Silly British people. Eventually, the “coq” part was dropped and the name turkeys stuck.
Number 2: Before the exploration of North America, Europeans dined on another semi-large bird from Africa, specifically Guinea, called the guinea fowl. From where did Europeans import the guinea fowl? You guessed it: Constantinople. It, too, was called the “Turkey coq.” So when settlers arrived in North America and encountered a bird that kinda, sorta resembled a guinea fowl, they either mistakenly called it a turkey or simply decided to name the new bird a familiar moniker.
Domesticated turkeys cannot fly, but wild turkeys can, at speeds up to 50 miles an hour. They can also run quite quickly, topping out somewhere around 12 miles per hour. Perhaps strangely, they can also swim.
In 1831, the great American birder, John James Audubon, wrote about the wild turkey: “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”
Another great American often associated with the turkey is Benjamin Franklin. A popular tale has it that he preferred the turkey as the national symbol of the United States in place of the bald eagle. Despite some misgivings about the eagle (“He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.”) and a preference for the turkey (“a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America”), little evidence exists that he actively sought the switch. In fact, he was on the committee that decided the emblem for the nation.
You’re probably familiar with the wattle of a turkey, marked as #3 in the image above. All the outgrowths are technically called caruncles. The general caruncles are labeled as #1. Numero two is called the snood, which hangs down from the forehead and aids in the mating ritual, known as strutting. Four points to a large growth, noted as a major caruncle. Like some humans, turkeys can also have beards, denoted by the number 5 in the infographic.
In addition to the famous “gobble” sound, turkeys can also produce keouks, and putts, and kuts. Check out the video below for some of the sounds in action, including some “vocabulary!”
So, now, whether you pardoned your turkey this year (we did!) or you’re going the traditional route, hopefully, you’ll know a bit more about the ubiquitous fowl of Thanksgiving!
Bonus Fact: Turkeys are now well known around the world, but the non-English world does not call them turkeys. Based on the erroneous evolution of the nomenclature we discussed above, you might think, “and rightly so!” But the rest of the world doesn’t get it any better. Because Christopher Columbus wanted to get to the “Indies” and things in North America began to be labeled wrongly as “Indian,” much of the rest of the world refers to turkeys as birds from India. In Arabic, the term is “diiq Hindi,” or the “Indian rooster.” In Russian, we have “Indjushka,” the bird of India. In French, the word is “dinde,” literally “of India.” What about people in Constantinople-now-Istanbul? In Turkish, the word is…”hindi,” which translates to India. So, in English, we call the bird Turkey because we thought they came from Turkey even though they came from North America and, in Turkey, they call it India because some guys thought they landed in the wrong spot. Go, humans!
Further Reading and Exploration
Turkeys can swim—and other fun facts for Thanksgiving table talk – National Geographic
Why A Turkey Is Called A Turkey – NPR
Study Shows That Humans Domesticated Turkeys For Worshipping, Not Eating – Science Alert
How Turkey Went Global: One bird’s journey from the forests of New England to the farms of Iran – The Atlantic