This is the time of year that we rightfully contemplate the noble Turkey. The very first thing we notice about this large member of the Galliformes is that there is a wild version and a domestic version, and although the two are rather different, they are both given the same species name, Meleagris gallopavo. This is not entirely unknown among domestic animals, but many domesticates have no living wild version. Thus, the cattle we raise for meat and dairy are sometimes called Bos taurus while the extinct wild form is always called Bos primigenius. The domestic cat has the uninspired name Felis catus in some circles, or otherwise, Felis silvestris while the wild version (not the feral version, but the wild cat that lives in Africa today) was once known by a Latin binomial that is no longer polite to say, for a while as Felix lybica, and now, owing to the trend of reconflating wild and domestic forms when they are known to interbreed, as Felis silvestris lybica. The domestic dog was once and still often is Canis familiaris as opposed to the wolf, Canis lupus, but the former which is really a subspecies of the latter is now Canis lupus familiaris. I don’t believe, but this is subject to correction, that the wild and domestic Turkey were ever called by different binomials.
Photograph of a Wild Turkey at Flatrock Brook Nature Center, in Englewood, New Jersey, by Corey.
The original distribution of the Wild Turkey is not clearly known, but it existed from the Eastern Seaboard of the US nearly to the Rocky Mountains, avoided some of the more open plains in the north, and occurred in central Mexico. It did not occur in the Yucatan or anywhere near it, and it did not occur on the islands in or near the Caribbean. It may or may not have occurred here and there in the far west; it does now, but these are probably recent introductions.
The Wild Turkey was used as a food source by Native Americans throughout its range, as far as I know, but in Central Mexico, it was domesticated by horticultural people. When the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés met up with the Aztecs after 1504, he encountered the domesticated Turkey and was impressed with it. Long before that time Mexican domesticated Turkeys had been adopted by Native Americans in the American Southwest as well. Some time after the Spanish encounter with the Turkey, birds were brought back to Europe where they were raised and became an important source of food and fancy feathers. This is where they got their name.
There are a lot of other large Galliforme birds around the world, and before the Spanish were busy conquering the New World, one of these, from Central Asia most likely, was already being imported as a food product and as live birds into Europe. They became known as “Turkie Fowl” (spelling varies) because they were coming from the general direction of Turkey. The “Fowl” was dropped and the term “Turkey” was applied to other large Galliformes that were encountered in the New World. So, when we see lists of things about the Turkey that say it was not named after Turkey (the country) we may wish to reconsider. It is. And it isn’t. It’s complicated.
Which brings us to an interesting possible falsehood that we encounter here and there. According to some sources, when the so-called Pilgrims settled in for the First Thanksgiving Dinner with the local Native Americans, in 1620, they dined on Turkey, and this Turkey came from the Old World, from stock that was originally brought to Spain by Columbus. For this to be true, there must have been Turkeys brought over on the Mayflower, and for it to be true in detail, Columbus must have been the guy who brought the Turkey back to the Old World. I’m pretty sure, though, that neither of these assertions can be proven and, in fact, I’m pretty sure they are simply not true.
It is possible that Columbus brought Turkeys back to Spain, but if he did, he did not bring them from the Caribbean Islands he spent much of his time in, because they did not exist there. There is no archaeological or historical evidence of wild or domestic Turkey in the region. During the very late 15th century and early 16th century, there are about five or so references to one Spanish explorer or another finding a “Turkey” and maybe or maybe not bringing it back to Europe. All but one of these references are in regions where the Turkey, domestic or wild, simply did not exist so these must have been one of those other large Galliformes being called a “Turkey” because that was the thing to do. The one case that could have been an actual Turkey was a bird spotted in Honduras, where they may or may not have been, by our friend Christopher Columbus. The chance that this was a real Turkey are not great, and the chance that Columbus actually brought breeding stock from Honduras to Spain is not great, so maybe, maybe not.
By 1511 or so, King Charles V of Spain was sending orders to the Spanish explorers and Conquistadors pertaining to the Turkey. According to R.D. Crawford, in “Introduction to Europe and Diffusion of Domesticated Turkeys from the America (sic)”:
A document dated 24 October 1511 was an order from the Bishop of Valencia for each ship from the Islands and Tierra Firme to bring to Seville ten turkeys, half males and half females, for breeding. Another from the King of Spain dated 30 september 1512 refers to two turkeys which had arrived in Spain from Hispaniola. Diffusion to other european countries subsequently was very rapid. Dates of first arrival listed by Schorger (1966) are: Italy 1520, Germany 1530, France 1538, England 1541, Denmark and Norway 1550, Sweden 1556. By mid–16th century turkeys were no longer a curiosity and they were seldom mentioned.
So, the second part of the Pilgrim story is plausible, in that Turkeys were well established in the Old World long before 1620. However, there are two reasons I don’t think they were on the Mayflower.
First, the Mayflower included not just hapless Puritans who knew nothing of the New World, but it also included people who had been there before acting as pilots and guides for the Puritans. The trip was probably reasonably well planned and it would have been known to these travelers that game birds, as well as deer and fish, were abundant in the region they were traveling to. Bringing animals that would require feed and water at that early stage would have been unwise. Later on, when all sorts of European stuff was being brought over, including swine and cattle, it would have made sense and it is quite possible that the Wild Turkey populations of New England and the Atlantic Colonies was invaded by escaped domesticates that owe their origin to Aztec farmers in Central Mexico.
Second, we have some documents regarding the First Thanksgiving, including a contemporary (probably more or less) account and a slightly later rendering of the story that was probably based on first hand accounts. Both are somewhat propagandistic and probably not fully accurate, but they match other sources of information about the time and place so they can be used albeit with caution. There certainly were birds eaten at the First Thanksgiving if we believe these reports, but they were harvested from the wild. The believability of this is underscored by the fact that the Pilgrims and their guides listed among their possession numerous “fowling pieces” … for hunting wild birds. They may have also had hunting dogs with them as well.
Eventually, of course, the wild turkeys in the entire Eastern region of the US were mostly or entirely wiped out in many areas, and it may well be that European stocks contributed to the reintroduction of Turkeys in the New World. Early research suggested that “Fragmented distributions and population bottlenecks due to human activities appear to have increased genetic differentiation among populations” (Leberg 1991). However, one genetic analysis done fairly recently shows that across the US, for the most part, Turkey genetic variability resembles what it would look like if they were a continuous wide ranging species. There is not the kind of patchiness and heterogeneity one might expect if an indigenous population was reduced to a few small refugia, then the expurgated regions repopulated with a mix of a population developed separately for a couple of centuries then re-released and mixed with the indigenous populations now expanding out of the refugia under conditions of conservation and management.
In any event, there is the distinct possibility that Wild Turkeys in North America today form a kind of squished up ring species, with an entirely anthropogenic European arm. Which would be weird.
One more item: Recent archaeological research in the Maya Zone tells us that the Maya did in fact obtain the domesticated version of the Turkey and kept them, even though there was a different species of Turkey in the region. Erin Kennedy Thornton et all report in an article called “Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication” the following:
Late Preclassic (300 BC–AD 100) turkey remains identified at the archaeological site of El Mirador (Petén, Guatemala) represent the earliest evidence of the Mexican turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in the ancient Maya world. Archaeological, zooarchaeological, and ancient DNA evidence combine to confirm the identification and context. The natural pre-Hispanic range of the Mexican turkey does not extend south of central Mexico, making the species non-local to the Maya area where another species, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), is indigenous. Prior to this discovery, the earliest evidence of M. gallopavo in the Maya area dated to approximately one thousand years later. The El Mirador specimens therefore represent previously unrecorded Preclassic exchange of animals from northern Mesoamerica to the Maya cultural region. As the earliest evidence of M. gallopavo found outside its natural geographic range, the El Mirador turkeys also represent the earliest indirect evidence for Mesoamerican turkey rearing or domestication. The presence of male, female and sub-adult turkeys, and reduced flight morphology further suggests that the El Mirador turkeys were raised in captivity. This supports an argument for the origins of turkey husbandry or at least captive rearing in the Preclassic.
The history of the Wild Turkey, the reduction to its original range, and its re-expansion and re-introduction, remains today unclear and in need of further research. I find that a little surprising since it is our national bird. Well, it isn’t really our national bird, but we all know that it should be.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!
Badenhorst, Shaw, et. al. 2012. The Potential of Osteometric Data for Comprehensive Studies of Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) Husbandry in the American Southwest. Kiva. 78(1):61–78.
Boehrer, Bruce, Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010., literature citation therein
Bradford, William. ca 1630–1647. Of Plymouth Plantation.
Crawford, R.D. 1992. Introduction to Europe and Diffusion of Domesticated Turkeys from the America. Arch. Zootec. 41 (extra) 307–314.
Mock, K.E. et al 2001. Genetic variation across the historical range of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). Mol. Ecol. 11(4):643–57.
Mourt’s Relation: A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England. Anon. ca 1621.
Newbold, Bradley, et. al. 2012. Early Holocene Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) Remains from SOUTHERN Utah: Implications for the Origins of the Puebloan Domestic Turkeys. Kiva 78(1):37–60.
Reitz, Elizabeth. The Spanish Colonial Experience and Domestic Animals. Historical Archaeology, Vol. 26.
Thornton, E., Emery, K., Steadman, D., Speller, C., Matheny, R., & Yang, D. (2012). Earliest Mexican Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the Maya Region: Implications for Pre-Hispanic Animal Trade and the Timing of Turkey Domestication PLoS ONE, 7 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042630