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Temporal range: Miocene – RecentEarly
|A male wild turkey strutting|
|Meleagris gallopavo (wild turkey)|
The turkey is a large bird in the genus Meleagris, native to North America. There are two extant turkey species: the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) of eastern and central North America and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Males of both turkey species have a distinctive fleshy wattle, called a snood, that hangs from the top of the beak. They are among the largest birds in their ranges. As with many large ground-feeding birds (order Galliformes), the male is bigger and much more colorful than the female.
The earliest turkeys evolved in North America over 20 million years ago. They share a recent common ancestor with grouse, pheasants, and other fowl. The wild turkey species is the ancestor of the domestic turkey, which was domesticated approximately 2,000 years ago.
The genus Meleagris was introduced in 1758 by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae. The genus name is from the Ancient Greek μελεαγρις, meleagris meaning "guineafowl". The type species is the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).
Turkeys are classed in the family Phasianidae (pheasants, partridges, francolins, junglefowl, grouse, and relatives thereof) in the taxonomic order Galliformes. They are close relatives of the grouse and are classified alongside them in the tribe Tetraonini.
The genus contains two species.
|Image||Scientific name||Common name||Distribution|
|Meleagris gallopavo||Wild turkey and domestic turkey||The forests of North America, from Mexico (where they were first domesticated in Mesoamerica) throughout the midwestern and eastern United States and into southeastern Canada|
|Meleagris ocellata||Ocellated turkey||The forests of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico|
- Meleagris californica Californian turkey – Southern California
- Meleagris crassipes Southwestern turkey - New Mexico
The linguist Mario Pei proposes two possible explanations for the name turkey. One theory suggests that when Europeans first encountered turkeys in the Americas, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl, which were already being imported into Europe by Turkey merchants via Constantinople. The birds were therefore nicknamed turkey coqs. The name of the North American bird may have then become turkey fowl or Indian turkeys, which was eventually shortened to turkeys.
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; hence turkey-cocks and turkey-hens, and soon thereafter, turkeys.
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". William Shakespeare used the term in Twelfth Night, believed to be written in 1601 or 1602. The lack of context around his usage suggests that the term was already widespread.
Other European names for turkeys incorporate an assumed Indian origin, such as dinde ('from India') in French, индюшка (indyushka, 'bird of India') in Russian, indyk in Polish and Ukrainian, and hindi ('Indian') in Turkish. These are thought to arise from the supposed belief of Christopher Columbus that he had reached India rather than the Americas on his voyage. In Portuguese a turkey is a peru; the name is thought to derive from 'Peru'.
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 the 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.
Turkeys were likely first domesticated in Pre-Columbian Mexico, where they held a cultural and symbolic importance. The Classical Nahuatl word for the turkey, huehxōlō-tl (guajolote in Spanish), is still used in modern Mexico, in addition to the general term pavo. Mayan aristocrats and priests appear to have had a special connection to ocellated turkeys, with ideograms of those birds appearing in Mayan manuscripts. Spanish chroniclers, including Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Father Bernardino de Sahagún, 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 turkeys, iguanas, chocolate, vegetables, fruits and more.
Turkeys were first exported to Europe via Spain around 1519, where they gained immediate popularity among the aristocratic classes. Turkeys arrived in England in 1541. From there, English settlers brought turkeys to North America during the 17th century.
Human conflicts with wild turkeys
Turkeys have been known to be aggressive toward humans and pets in residential areas. Wild turkeys have a social structure and pecking order and habituated turkeys may respond to humans and animals as they do other turkeys. Habituated turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates.
In 2017, the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, recommended a controversial approach when confronted with wild turkeys. Besides taking a step forward to intimidate the birds, officials also suggested "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". This advice was quickly rescinded and replaced with a caution that "being aggressive toward wild turkeys is not recommended by State wildlife officials.”
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. 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, became extinct recently enough to have been hunted by early human settlers. 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.
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 southwestern U.S.) – formerly Parapavo/Pavo
- Meleagris crassipes (Late Pleistocene of southwestern 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. In 2010, a team of scientists published a draft sequence of the domestic turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) genome.
In anatomical terms, a snood is an erectile, fleshy protuberance on the forehead of turkeys. Most of the time when the turkey is in a relaxed state, the snood is pale and 2–3 cm long. However, when the male begins strutting (the courtship display), the snood engorges with blood, becomes redder and elongates several centimeters, hanging well below the beak (see image).
While fighting, commercial turkeys often peck and pull at the snood, causing damage and bleeding. This often leads to further injurious pecking by other turkeys and sometimes results in cannibalism. To prevent this, some farmers cut off the snood when the chick is young, a process known as "de-snooding".
The snood can be between 3 to 15 centimetres (1 to 6 in) in length depending on the turkey's sex, health, and mood.
The snood functions in both intersexual and intrasexual selection. Captive female wild turkeys prefer to mate with long-snooded males, and during dyadic interactions, male turkeys defer to males with relatively longer snoods. These results were demonstrated using both live males and controlled artificial models of males. Data on the parasite burdens of free-living wild turkeys revealed a negative correlation between snood length and infection with intestinal coccidia, deleterious protozoan parasites. This indicates that in the wild, the long-snooded males preferred by females and avoided by males seemed to be resistant to coccidial infection.
Use by humans
The species Meleagris gallopavo is eaten by humans. 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. Turkeys were first eaten by Native Americans by about AD 1100. Compared to wild turkeys, domestic turkeys are selectively bred to grow larger in size for their meat. Americans often eat turkey on special occasions such as at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
The Norfolk turkeys
In her memoirs, Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826–1913) recalls that her great-grandfather Horatio Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1723–1809), imported a quantity of American turkeys 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.
A male (tom) wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) strutting (spreading its feathers) in a field
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