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A turkey is either of two living species of large birds in the genus Meleagris. One species, Meleagris gallopavo, commonly known as the Wild Turkey, is native to the forests of North America. The other species, Meleagris ocellata, known as the Ocellated Turkey, is native to the forests of the Yucatán Peninsulamarker.

The domestic turkey is a descendant of the Wild Turkey and features prominently in the menu of the U.S. and Canadian holidays of Thanksgiving and that of Christmas in many countries.

Turkeys are classed in the taxonomic order of Galliformes. Within this order they are relatives of the family/subfamily Tetraonidae (grouse). Turkeys have a distinctive fleshy wattle that hangs from the underside of the beak, and a fleshy protuberance that hangs from the top of its beak called a snood. With wingspans of , the turkeys are by far the largest birds in the open forests in which they live. As with many Galliform species the female (hen) is smaller than the male (tom or gobbler) and is much less colorful.

History and naming

When Europeans first encountered turkeys in the Americas they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl (Numididae), also known as Turkey fowl (or Turkey hen and Turkey cock) from their importation to Central Europe through Turkeymarker, and that name, shortened to just the name of the country, stuck as the name of the bird. The confusion between these kinds of birds from related but different families is also reflected in the scientific name for the turkey genus: meleagris ( ) is Greek for guineafowl. The domesticated turkey is attributed to Aztec agriculture, which addressed one subspecies of Meleagris gallopavo local to the present day states of Jaliscomarker and Guerreromarker.

The names for M. gallopavo in other languages also frequently reflect its exotic origins, seen from an Old World viewpoint, and add to the confusion about where turkeys actually came from. The many references to Indiamarker seen in common names go back to a combination of two factors: first, the genuine belief that the newly-discovered Americas were in fact a part of Asia, and second, the tendency during that time to attribute exotic animals and foods to a place that symbolized far-off, exotic lands. The latter is reflected in terms like "Muscovy Duck" (which is from South America, not Muscovy). This was a major reason why the name Turkey fowl stuck to Meleagris rather than to the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris): the Ottoman Empire represented the exotic East.

The name given to a group of turkeys is a rafter, although they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a gobble or flock.

Several other birds which are sometimes called turkeys are not particularly closely related: the Australian Brush-turkey is a megapode, and the bird sometimes known as the "Australian Turkey" is in fact the Australian Bustard, a gruiform. The bird sometimes called a Water Turkey is actually an Anhinga (Anhinga rufa).

Flight

While large domesticated turkeys are generally unable to fly, smaller, lighter domesticated turkeys known as heritage turkeys and wild turkeys can fly. In domesticated turkeys the ability to fly depends directly on weight, while even heavy adult wild turkeys can fly well enough to avoid predators by taking off and flying up to and perching in tree branches. Turkey poults (chicks) cannot fly for the first two weeks after hatching.

Fossil record

Many turkeys have been described from fossils. The Meleagrididae 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, Virginiamarker.In the modern genus Meleagris, a considerable number of species have been described, as turkey fossils are robust, fairly often found, and turkeys show much 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 settlersand it is believed its demise was due to the combined pressures of climate change at the end of the last glacial period and hunting. The modern species and the California Turkey seem to have diverged approximately one million years ago.

Turkeys known only from fossils

  • 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 of their own family, the Meleagrididae but a recent genomic analyses of a retrotransposon marker groups turkeys in the family Phasianidae.

Footnotes

  1. Webster's II New College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2005, ISBN 9780618396016, p. 1217
  2. Andrew F. Smith: The Turkey: An American Story. University of Illinois Press 2006, ISBN 9780252031632, p. 17
  3. C. Michael Hogan. 2008. Wild turkey: Meleagris gallopavo, GlobalTwitcher.com, ed. N. Stromberg
  4. Collins English Dictionary
  5. Formerly Parapavo californica and initially described as Pavo californica or "California Peacock"
  6. ; lay summary
  7. 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 509:92 pp.


References

  • Madge and McGowan, Pheasants, Partridges and Grouse ISBN 0-7136-3966-0
  • "National Geographic" Field Guide to the Birds of North America ISBN 0792268776
  • Porter, W. F. (1994). Family Meleagrididae (Turkeys). Pp.364–375 in; del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 2. New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 8487334156


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