1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Turkey (bird)
TURKEY, an abbreviation for Turkey-Cock or Turkey-Hen as the case may be, a well-known large domestic gallinaceous bird. How it came by this name has long been a matter of discussion, for it is certain that this valuable animal was introduced to Europe from the New World, and in its introduction had nothing to do with Turkey or with Turks, even in the old and extended sense in which that term was applied to all Mahommedans. But it is almost as unquestionable that the name was originally applied to the bird which we know as the guinea-fowl (q.v.), and there is no doubt that some authors in the 16th and 17th centuries curiously confounded these two species. As both birds became more common and better known, the distinction was gradually perceived, and the name “turkey” became restricted to that from the New World—possibly because of its repeated call-note—to be syllabled turk, turk, turk, whereby it may be almost said to have named itself (cf. Notes and Queries, 6th series, vol. iii. pp. 23, 369). But even Linnaeus could not clear himself of the confusion, and unhappily misapplied the name Meleagris, undeniably belonging to the guinea-fowl, as the generic term for what we now know as the turkey, adding thereto as its specific designation the word gallopavo, taken from the Gallopava of C. Gesner, who, though not wholly free from error, was less mistaken than some of his contemporaries and even successors.
The turkey, so far as we know, was first described by Oviedo in his Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias (cap. xxxvi.), said to have been published in 1527. He, not unnaturally, includes both curassows and turkeys in one category, calling both “Pavos” (peafowls); but he carefully distinguishes between them, pointing out among other things that the latter make a wheel (hacen la rueda) of their tail, though this was not so grand or so beautiful as that of the Spanish “Pavo,” and he gives a faithful though short description of the turkey. The chief point of interest in his account is that he speaks of the species having been already taken from New Spain (Mexico) to the islands and to Castilla del Oro (Darien), where it bred in a domestic state among the Christians. Much labour has been given by various naturalists to ascertain the date of its introduction to Europe, to which we can at present only make an approximate attempt; but after all that has been written it is plain that evidence concurs to show that the bird was established in Europe by 1530—a very short time to have elapsed since it became known to the Spaniards, which could hardly have been before 1518, when Mexico was discovered. The possibility that it had been brought to England by Cabot or some of his successors earlier in the century is not to be overlooked, and reasons will presently be assigned for supposing that one of the breeds of English turkeys may have had a northern origin; but the often-quoted distich first given in Baker’s Chronicle (p. 298), asserting that turkeys came into England in the same year—and that year by reputation 1524—as carps, pickerels and other commodities, is wholly untrustworthy, for we know that both these fishes lived in the country long before, if indeed they were not indigenous to it. The earliest documentary evidence of its existence in England is a “constitution” set forth by Cranmer in 1541, which Hearne first printed (Leland's Collectanea, 2nd ed., vol. vi. p. 38). This names “Turkey-cocke” as one of the “greater fowles” of which an ecclesiastic was to have “but one in a dishe,” and its association with the crane and swan precludes the likelihood of any confusion with the guinea-fowl. Moreover the comparatively low price of the two turkeys and four turkey-chicks served at a feast of the serjeants-at-law in 1555 (Dugdale, Origines, p. 135) points to their having become by that time abundant, and indeed by 1573 Tusser bears witness to the part they had already begun to play in “Christmas, husbandlie fare.” In 1555 both sexes were characteristically figured by Belon (Oyseaux, p. 249), as was the cock by Gesner in the same year, and these are the earliest representations of the bird known to exist.
As a denizen of the poultry-yard there are at least two distinct breeds, though crosses between them are much commoner than purely-bred examples of either (see Poultry). That known as the Norfolk breed is the smaller of the two, and is said to be the less hardy. Its plumage is black. The chicks also are black, with occasionally white patches on the head. The other breed, called the Cambridge, is much more variegated in colour, and some parts of the plumage have a bright metallic gloss, while the chicks are generally mottled with brownish grey. This has been much crossed with the American Bronze, the largest of all, which has the beautiful metallic plumage of the wild bird, with the Mexican form of which it quite agrees in colour. White, pied and buff turkeys are also often seen, and if care be taken they are commonly found to “breed true.” Occasionally turkeys, the cocks especially, occur with a top-knot of feathers, and one of them was figured by Albin in 1738. It has been suggested with some appearance of probability that the Norfolk breed may be descended from the northern form, Meleagris gallopavo or americana, while the Cambridge breed may spring from the southern form, the M. mexicana of Gould (Proc. Zool. Society, 1856, p. 61), which indeed it very much resembles, especially in having its tail-coverts and quills tipped with white or light ochreous—points that recent North American ornithologists rely upon as distinctive of this form. If this supposition be true, there would be reason to believe in the double introduction of the bird into England at least, as already hinted, but positive information is almost wholly wanting. The northern form of wild turkey, whose habits have been described in much detail by all the chief writers on North American birds, is now extinct in the settled parts of Canada and the eastern states of the Union, where it was once so numerous; and in Mexico the southern form, which would seem to have been never abundant since the conquest, has been for many years rare. Farther to the south, on the borders of Guatemala and British Honduras, there exists a perfectly distinct species, M. ocellata, whose plumage almost vies with that of a peacock in splendour, while the bare skin which covers the head is of a deep blue studded with orange caruncles (Proc. Zool. Society, 1861, pl. xl.).
- The French Coq and Poule d’Inde (whence Dindon) involve no contradiction, looking to the general idea of what India then was. One of the earliest German names for the bird, Kalekuttisch Hün (whence the Scandinavian Kalkon), must have arisen through some mistake at present inexplicable; but this does not refer, as is generally supposed, to Calcutta, but to Calicut on the Malabar coast (cf. Notes and Queries, 6th series, vol. x. p. 185).
- Purchas (Pilgrimes, iii. 995) in 1625 quoted both from this and from the same author’s Hystoria general, said to have been published a few years later.
- The bibliography of the turkey is so large that there is here no room to name the various works that might be cited. Recent research has failed to add anything of importance to what has been said on this point by Buffon (Oiseaux, ii. 132–162), Pennant (Arctic Zoology, pp. 291-300)—an admirable summary—and Broderip (Zoological Recreations, pp. 120–137)—not that all their statements can be wholly accepted. Harrington’s essay (Miscellanies, pp. 127–151), to prove that the bird was known before the discovery of America and was transported thither, is an ingenious piece of special pleading which his friend Pennant did him the real kindness of ignoring.
- In 1672 Josselin (New England’s Rarities, p. 9) speaks of the settlers bringing up “great store of the wild kind” of turkeys, “which remain about their houses as tame as ours in England.” The bird was evidently plentiful down to the very seaboard of Massachusetts, and it is not likely to have been domesticated by the Indian tribes there, as, according to Hernandez, it seems to have been by the Mexicans. It was probably easy to take alive, and, as we know, capable of enduring the voyage to England.
- For results of a comparison of the skulls of wild and domesticated turkeys, see Dr Shufeldt, in Journ. of Comp. Medicine and Surgery (July 1887).