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Intro to Wild Turkey


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Introduction to the Wild Turkey - Meleagris Gallopavo


Pre - Colonial

Ancient North & Central American History of the Wild Turkey

15th Century Aztec Drawing of a Wild Turkey

There are two types of wild turkey, both of which are strong fliers (up to 55 mph for short distances) and among the fastest runners (15-30 mph). One type is originally from Yucatan and Guatemala (Agriocharis ocellata; family - Phasianidae) and the other is from Mexico and the US (Meleagris gallopavo; family -Phasianidae). Fossil records have shown they were once much more widespread. They diverged from pheasants 11 million years ago and were likely distributed continuously from middle latitudes of North America to northern South America during the Pleistocene.

Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), or "huexolotlin" in the ancient language of the Aztecs in Mexico was one of the first animals in the Americas to be domesticated. The Aztecs in Mexico considered "huexolotlin" so important, they dedicated two religious festivals a year to the birds. During the celebration, turkey eggshells which had been saved for months were strewn upon the streets to honor the god who favored them with such a plentiful source of food. The turkey was also one of the manifestations of Tezcatlipoca, the trickster god, who had been elevated to the highest position in the Aztec polytheistic pantheon. All year round, it was not uncommon for over 1000 turkeys a day to be sold in a busy Aztec market. There is evidence that turkeys and were kept in pens for their plumage. The natives used turkey feathers for necklaces, head adornments, and arrows.

Appreciation for the turkey was also evident in the Mayan culture where parts of the bird were used in sacred ceremonies. Its popularity among other tribes grew, and the turkey population had spread far beyond Mexico by the time the first European explorers set foot there.

In North America, tribes like the Navajo first encountered wild turkeys after they had trouble keeping the hungry birds away from the scanty crops they had scratched out of the desert. Losing the battle to bar them from the cornfields, they decided instead to feed the turkeys and fence them in. By barging in and refusing to leave, the invading turkeys unwittingly provided a controlled source of protein and ornamental feathers. Instead of pests, they became symbols of friendship and providence.

The Eastern turkey subspecies, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, spread to the Northeast where nomadic Indians did not bother to domesticate the bird who enjoyed the abundant vegetation and thrived without agricultural welfare. Tribes like the Wampanoags hunted wild turkeys with bows and arrows. The turkeys were "called up" by imitating their calls, and then grabbed by a child hiding behind some logs or in a pit, or shot with bow and arrow.

Some say Christopher Columbus named turkeys "tuka," the Tamil word for peacock. Considering Columbus thought he was in India at the time of the alleged naming, not in the New World where he actually was, this definition seems fairly plausible. Another suggestion is that Luis de Torres, a physician who served under Columbus, named the bird "tukki," which translates to "big bird" in Hebrew. Some say the North American Indians called the bird "firkee." If so, it's a word everyone else has mispronounced the past 508 years.

In 1519, Cortez and his fellow Spanish Conquistadors had found the Aztecs raising huexolotlin around their homes. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, kept the turkeys in his famous zoo, it is said, as food for the other animals. Cortez might have been served turkey mole poblano (mole of the people.) Turkey mole poblano is traditionally prepared with chocolate and chile.

The Spaniards soon carried the savored "el pavo" back to Europe where they quickly became a popular fowl and a choice dish for state dinners. The turkey was little larger than the traditional goose, with a lot more meat and a refreshingly new taste. These exotic birds were introduced at a time when America was called The Spanish Indies or the New Indies, illustrating the confusion in people's minds about the true location of this new land that Columbus had found. As a result, the Spaniards mistakenly called them "Indian fowl." As the Indian fowl was eventually acquired and raised throughout Europe and Asia, many languages, as well as others like Arabic and Hebrew, called the "Indian fowl" names like the "bird of India."

In 1530, English merchants trading out of that area of the eastern Mediterranean called the Levant but whom the English called "Turkey merchants" because that whole area was then part of the Turkish empire. The "Indian fowl" was served to and enjoyed by all. The English mistakenly named this fowl a "Turkey bird", or "Turkey cock". To compound the difficulties the English had with this immigrant fowl, at about the same time, the 1530s, Portuguese merchants reintroduced the guinea-fowl from West Africa, which had last been seen in England at the time of the Romans. As it was the same Levant merchants who brought this into the country, the guinea fowl was also known for a time as the "Turkey bird", though this confusion didn't last long. For example, the heraldic arms granted to William Strickland in 1550 featured "a turkey-bird in his pride proper" and the bird shown is quite definitely a proper turkey.

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