A Tale of Two Turkeys: the North American Bird and a Eurasian Country

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 27, 2014 10
Wild turkeys travel in flocks. They search on the ground for food, such as berries, insects, nuts, and snails. After being extensively hunted, they were reintroduced and are numerous once again, occurring in every state except Alaska. ©Bob Leggett

Wild turkeys travel in flocks. They search on the ground for food, such as berries, insects, nuts, and snails. After being extensively hunted, they were reintroduced and are now numerous, occurring in every state except Alaska. ©Bob Leggett

Native to the United States and Mexico, the turkey has become our traditional main course on Thanksgiving all across our nation. So, how did a strictly North American bird come to share a moniker with a Eurasian country?

Mario Pei, a Columbia University professor of Romance languages, came up with two theories: One, in the 1500s, the American bird started to appear in Great Britain, shipped there by Eastern merchants who were mostly from Constantinople. Although those merchants had originally imported the bird from North America, since it wholesaled out of Turkey, the British referred to it as a “Turkey cock.” At that time, any product that made its way to London from the far side of the Danube was labeled “Turkey [fill in the blank].” For example, Persian carpets were called “Turkey rugs” and Indian flour was called “Turkey flour.” The name for the bird was subsequently shortened to just “Turkey.”

Theory two: Europeans had a wild fowl they liked to eat long before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. It came from Guinea, in Western Africa. This bird was termed a “Guinea fowl,” and it, too, was imported to Europe by Turkish merchants. Londoners gave it the nickname “Turkey cock,” because it came from Constantinople. When British settlers stepped off the Mayflower in Massachusetts Bay Colony and saw their first American woodland fowl, they decided to call it by the name they already used for the African bird (even though the native North American turkey is larger than the African guinea fowl).

Watch the video below from Think Fact, which illustrates the convoluted way in which our turkey may have acquired its name. It’s unfortunate that one of our native animals has never been bestowed with a truly American handle.

It might be time. Perhaps, taking a cue from Benjamin Franklin, we should call it the “courage bird.”

Happy Thanksgiving,

Candy

10 Comments »

  1. Chris Gorman, PE December 1, 2014 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the information.
    Always wondered how the turkey got its name and what the connection was to the Turks.

  2. Beverly Burmeier November 30, 2014 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Fun bit of trivia for the holiday.

  3. John A. Leone November 30, 2014 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    I always thought Wild Turkey wuz a drink !!

    (Jest Kiddin )

  4. Donna Wilson November 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm - Reply

    You’re right! In Belize, the locals call Jaguar, Tiger Cats!

  5. Jim Turlington November 29, 2014 at 11:42 am - Reply

    Todays domesticated turkey came about in Mexico when wild turkey eggs ware gathered and hatched then raised as a food source. Over time they became domesticated and it was a practice widely used by Native Americans in the pre-Columbian culture. Spanish explorers took domesticated turkeys from Mexico back to Spain that were thought to have come from the Aztecs. The birds then began to find their way via traders through other parts of Europe, and some believed they came from Turkey, so they were called Turkeys.

    Those domesticated birds were then brought back to the American colonies from Europe. The domesticated turkey arrived in the United States at what was then known as the Jamestown settlement around 1607.

    The wild turkey has always been native to the North America, as well as parts of Mexico. There is a very colorful wild turkey called the Ocellated, that is native to the Yucatan peninsula region of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. I have painted it several occasions, as well as the Florida Osceola, the Eastern, Merriams, and the Goulds.

    As an artist, photographer, researcher and sportsman I have studied the wild turkey since 1971. It a very fascinating bird to study.

    Anyone wanting to read about wild turkeys, how they became domesticated, should read a book titled, ” THE WILD TURKEY Biology and Management,” compiled and edited by James G. Dickson. The book contains a lot of technical knowledge about the wild turkey, but its a very interesting book to read and have as reference. I have a copy myself and would not give it up for anything.

    • Rob Blye December 1, 2014 at 8:27 am - Reply

      Jim,

      Is this information about domestication of the turkey and its subsequent documented in the book you recommend? I have heard that path to use by the Pilgrims before but could never find hard documentation.

      Rob Blye

  6. Gaddy Bergmann November 29, 2014 at 11:36 am - Reply

    That’s reminiscent of how the Australian shepherd dog got its name. Basque shepherds brought these dogs to the USA via Australia. Seems like ports of call can have a strong effect one where people think animals really come from.

  7. Tavo November 28, 2014 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    In support of theory two, there are a couple of similar examples from Spanish conquerors in the Americas. They called mountain lions/pumas simply as “leones” (lions) and jaguars as “tigres” (tigers), probably thinking that these american cats were the same kind as their afro-asiatic cousins. Even nowadays, some people in rural settings in Latin America use the words léon and tigre to refer to these cats routinely.

  8. Travis November 27, 2014 at 9:09 am - Reply

    This was the perfect post!

  9. Pat LaStrapes November 27, 2014 at 9:01 am - Reply

    Excellent Turkimology! Or, more appropriately, Hindimology, perhaps?

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