The turkey is a large bird in the genus Meleagris, which is native to the Americas.
There are two species of turkeys: the wild turkey of eastern and central North America and the ocellated turkey of the Yucatán Peninsula.
They are among the largest birds in their ranges.
The wild turkey normally weighs from 2.5 to 11 kg (5.5 to 24 lb) and measures 75 to 125 cm (30 to 49 in) in length. Wild turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. They exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. Female feathers are duller overall, in shades of brown and gray. Parasites can dull coloration of both sexes – in males, coloration may serve as a signal of health. The primary wing feathers have white bars.
The ocellated turkey normally weighs from 3 to 5 kg (6.6 to 24 lb) and measures 70 to 122 cm (28 to 48 in) in length. It has a blue head with reddish yellow bumps, bright-tipped feathers, almost peacocklike, and, in addition to the long bill wattle, a yellow-tipped knob on the crown.
The wild turkey prefers woodlands near water. It eats seeds, insects, and an occasional frog or lizard. When alarmed, it may run rapidly to cover.
The ocellated turkey lives only in a 130,000 square kilometers (50,000 square miles) range in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. They spend most of the time on the ground and often prefer to run to escape danger through the day rather than fly, though they can fly swiftly and powerfully for short
distances. Roosting is usually high in trees away from night-hunting predators, such as jaguars, and usually in a family group.
Both species in the wild are strong fliers (up to 90 km/h (55 mph) for short distances) and fast runners (25 to 50 km/h (about 15 to 30 mph)).
Turkeys have been known to be aggressive toward humans and pets in residential areas. Wild turkeys have a social structure and pecking order and habituated turkeys may respond to humans and animals as they do to another turkey. Habituated turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates.
The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, recommends that citizens be aggressive toward the turkeys, take a step toward them and not back down. Brookline officials have also recommended “making noise (clanging pots or other objects together) – popping open an umbrella – shouting and waving your arms – squirting them with a hose – allowing your leashed dog to bark at them – and forcefully fending them off with a broom.”
In courtship display, the male spreads his tail, droops his wings and shakes the quills audibly, retracts his head, struts about, and utters rapid gobbling sounds. He assembles a harem, and each hen lays 8–15 brownish spotted eggs in a hollow in the ground. The young (poults) hatch in 28 days.
In commercial production, breeder farms supply eggs to hatcheries. After 28 days of incubation, the hatched poults are sexed and delivered to the grow-out farms – hens are raised separately from toms because of different growth rates.
The earliest turkeys evolved in North America over 20 million years ago and they share a recent common ancestor with grouse, pheasants, and other fowl.
Wild turkeys, including the wild tom, with his bold tail fan, dangling snood, and bright wattles, were revered in ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations. The Aztecs honored the wild turkey, which they called huexolotlin, with religious festivals twice a year and believed turkeys to be a bird manifestation of Tezcatlipoca, a trickster god. Because of that spiritual connection, the feathers of turkeys were frequently used to adorn necklaces, headdresses, jewelry, and clothing. The Mayans revered and honored turkeys in similar ways.
Domestic turkeys come from the Wild Turkey. They were domesticated for food and for their cultural and symbolic significance.
Although turkey domestication was thought to have occurred in central Mesoamerica at least 2,000 years ago, recent research suggests a possible second domestication event in the southwestern United States between 200 BC and AD 500. However, all of the main domestic turkey varieties today descend from the turkey raised in central Mexico that was subsequently imported into Europe.
Domestic turkeys were first taken to Spain about 1519, and from Spain they spread throughout Europe, reaching England in 1541. When the bird became popular in England, the name turkey-cock, formerly used for the guinea fowl of Islamic (or “Turkish”) lands, was transferred to it. English colonists then introduced European-bred strains of the turkey to eastern North America in the 17th century. Turkeys were mainly bred for their beautifully coloured plumage until about 1935, after which the breeding emphasis changed to their meat qualities.
Today, the domestic turkey is a popular form of poultry, and it is raised throughout temperate parts of the world, partially because industrialized farming has made it very cheap for the amount of meat it produces. Female domestic turkeys are referred to as hens, and the chicks may be called poults or turkeylings. In the United States, the males are referred to as toms, while in the United Kingdom and Ireland, males are stags.
Roast turkey in many European countries has long been a customary Christmas dish. In the United States the bird is especially associated with the holiday of Thanksgiving. Turkey production has thus tended to be seasonal, though in the United States and some other countries, ready-to-cook lean, boned turkey is available in rolls any time of the year.
The ancient people of Mexico had not only domesticated the turkey, but had apparently developed sophisticated recipes including these ingredients—many used to this day—over hundreds of years.
There are two theories for the derivation of the name turkey, both of which may be correct, according to Columbia University professor of Romance languages Mario Pei.
One theory is that when Europeans first encountered turkeys in America, they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl, which were already being imported into Europe by Turkey merchants via Constantinople and were therefore nicknamed Turkey coqs (Middle Eastern merchants were called Turkey merchants as much of that area was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time). The name of the North American bird thus became turkey fowl or Indian turkeys, which was then shortened to just turkeys.
A second theory arises from turkeys coming to England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships from the Middle East, where they were domesticated successfully. Again the importers lent the name to the bird – hence Turkey-cocks and Turkey-hens, and soon thereafter, turkeys.
Today, more than 7 million wild turkeys are roaming forested areas of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Every state in the US except Alaska has a stable enough population to allow regulated hunting of the birds, and turkey hunting is a popular sport. Different states may offer different turkey hunting seasons in spring and fall, depending on the local bird populations and game management plans.
Turkeys are notable for their ability, rare amongst higher species, to reproduce asexually. In the absence of a male, female turkeys are known to produce fertile eggs.