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A Brief History of Turkey

By: Eric Wang

The turkey, a large bird in the genus Meleagris, is native to North America. With two species on the continent, several theories as to where its name came from, and it being a favorite for Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey is definitely an interesting bird.

Currently, there are two extant species of turkey. The first is the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) which lives in eastern and central North America. This is the species that humans domesticated roughly 2000 years ago in Mesoamerica. However, most domesticated turkey varieties today descend from the turkeys imported to Spain in the 16th century. The second species of turkey is the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) which lives in the forests of the Yucatán Peninsula. Fossils also show the existence of two other turkey species which are now extinct. They are the Californian turkey (Meleagris californica) and the Southwestern turkey (Meleagris crassipes).

Linguist Mario Pei proposed two theories as to where the name “turkey” came from. His first theory suggests that the Europeans mistook turkeys for guineafowl, which were also being imported at the time by Turkish merchants. The birds were then nicknamed “turkey coqs.” His second theory suggests that turkeys arrived in England from Middle East merchants, where the importers lent the name to the bird. Hence, the birds were called turkey-cocks and turkey-hens, and later, turkeys.

Of course, turkeys are most known for being served at Thanksgiving dinners. Native Americans first ate turkeys around 1100 BCE. Nowadays, turkeys are a popular poultry dish and are served on important holidays, especially Thanksgiving.

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