The History of Turkey

From sacred bird to a succulent meal

live turkey bird in coop
Petr Kratochvil/PublicDomainPictures

What are Turkeys?

Turkeys belong to the genus Meleagris and are native to North and South America. Wild turkey, or Meleagris gallopavo, is native to North America while Meleagris ocellata is native to South America. Most domesticated turkeys are descendants of Meleagris gallopavo.

Turkeys are large birds that can fly short distances and run up to speeds of 30 miles per hour. Wild turkeys travel in flocks and fossil records show that they once roamed freely over most of North and South America.

Turkeys and Ancient Cultures

Turkeys were one of the first animals to be domesticated in the ancient Americas. Evidence has shown turkeys to play a pivotal role in the life and ceremonies of Aztec, Mayan, and Native American cultures.

In the Aztec culture, turkeys played a large part in religious ceremonies and even represented their god, Tezcatlipoca. Turkeys were traded and sold abundantly in Aztec markets, and their colorful plumage was used for arrows, headdresses, and necklaces. Evidence has also shown turkeys to play a large part in ceremonial rituals of the Mayan culture.

In Native American cultures, turkeys were both domesticated and hunted for pleasure. The turkey became a symbol of friendship and divinity, which may have influenced its inclusion in the Thanksgiving celebrations of early European settlers.

The Turkey Travels to Europe

In the 1500’s, Spanish conquistadors traveling to Latin America were quickly introduced to the turkey, which was a popular food source to native cultures.

It wasn’t long before the Spanish explorers brought turkeys back to Europe where they were quickly domesticated.

In 1570, turkey was served at the wedding feast of Charles IX in France and was so enjoyed by the King that it became a popular offering at French banquets.

The Turkey-Pilgrim Connection

When the pilgrims arrived in America in the 1600’s, they found wild turkeys, which resembled the large birds that they had been breeding in Europe.

The abundant turkey population became a major food source as the pilgrims searched the new land for food. Although there is no direct evidence that turkeys were served as part of the original Thanksgiving Day celebration, they were a major food source for both Native Americans and the Pilgrims so it is thought that turkeys may have been included on that day in 1621.

It is unclear when turkeys became the undisputed symbol of Thanksgiving Day, but over the last century, the two have become inseparable. Thanksgiving has even earned the unofficial nickname Turkey Day by the American public.

Turkey – The National Bird?

In 1776 the National Seal was being created and the bird that was to be depicted upon it was up for debate. Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey because it “Native of America... a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards.” In the end, Franklin’s choice was out-voted by the other members of the committee and the Bald Eagle became the bird embellished on the National Seal.

Turkeys Today

Turkey today is a big business. Turkey consumption in the United States continues to climb and factory farmed turkeys now account for more than 99 percent of turkeys sold in the country.

The most common breed, the Broad Breasted White, has been bred to provide the most white breast meat possible per bird. These birds are often so large breasted that they can barely walk, let alone fly like their wild counterparts.

In recent years there has been a resurgence in the popularity of “heritage breeds” or heirloom breeds that more closely resemble wild turkeys. These breeds are smaller, have denser meat, a lower breast to dark meat ratio, and a more wild or gamey flavor. Because these breeds are farmed in much smaller numbers and provide less meat than their commercially bred cousins, they are some of the costliest birds on the market.