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Turkey (bird)

Related subjects: Birds

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Temporal range: Early Pliocene to Recent
Wild Turkey, Meleagris gallopavo
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Galliformes
Family: Meleagrididae
Gray, 1840
Genus: Meleagris
Linnaeus, 1758

M. gallopavo
M. ocellata

A turkey is either of two extant species of large birds in the genus Meleagris native to North America. Turkeys are classed in the order Galliformes. Within this family they are placed on one branch with Tetraonidae. 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. As with many galliform species, the female (the hen) is smaller than the male (the tom), and much less colorful. With wingspans of 1.5–1.8 meters (almost 6 feet), the turkeys are by far the largest birds in the open forests in which they live, and are rarely mistaken for any other species.


When Europeans first encountered turkeys in the Americas they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl (Numida meleagris), also known as a turkey-cock from its importation to Central Europe through Turkey, and the name of that country stuck as the name of the bird. The confusion is also reflected in the scientific name: meleagris is Greek for guinea-fowl.

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 India 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-cock" stuck to Meleagris rather than to the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris): the Ottoman Empire represented the exotic East.

Turkey headcount in 2004

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)

Fossil turkeys

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, Virginia.

Wild Turkey.

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 settlers. though its actual demise is more probably attributable to climate change at the end of the last ice age. 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.


A young turkey, also called a 'poult'.

While the large domestic turkey is generally unable to fly, the smaller wild turkey can fly to several meters high. This is usually enough to perch in the branches of trees, however, it is an ineffective method of transportation. Turkey poults (chicks) are unable to fly for the first two weeks after they hatch.

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