Reflections in Nature: Turkeys not always common

In a few days, hunters will head into the woods, searching for the wild turkey. Although spending time in the autumn woods is very enjoyable, seeing and hearing the spring woods come alive at dawn provides a pleasure almost beyond description.

The state Game Commission predicts that the turkey population for spring turkey hunters is excellent; however, it was not always that way.

Our turkey belongs to the Meleagrididae family, which was named by Linnaeus in 1758. The name comes from the Latin word meleagris, the ancient Roman name for the guinea fowl, which was a bird that early European writers often confused with the turkey.

In Pennsylvania, our wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The genus name is Latin, meaning a guinea fowl, which comes from the German word Meleager, who was a mythology hero of the Calydonian boar hunt.

The species name comes from two Latin words: gallus, meaning a cock, and pavo, meaning a chicken-like peafowl.

The turkey is the largest North American upland game bird. In North America, all of the turkeys, including our domestic turkey, are one species; however, there are six recognized geographic sub-species that have become markedly different in appearance, due to the various environments where they live.

The six species are:

Eastern turkey (forest turkey);

  • Osceola turkey (named for the famous Seminole Indian Chief, of Florida);
  • Rio Grande turkey (arid bush country of Texas);
  • South Mexican turkey (first to be named and the breed that was domesticated and introduced into Europe);

Gould’s turkey (Sierra Madre area of northwest Mexico); and

Merriam’s turkey (Rocky Mountains and named for the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, which now is the Fish and Wildlife Service).

Biologists are unsure how the common name of turkey came about.

In Spanish, the bird was called the American bird pabo after a peafowl. In 1524, when the turkey arrived in England, the guinea fowl of Africa already had claimed the name of turkey; therefore, both species were known as turkey for a time by the English.

Some reasoned that the turkey might have been a general term for foreign goods and others believed that the English used turkey as a geographical term with Central Asia. Still others believed that English trade with the eastern Mediterraneans, who were known as Turkish at that time, gave the name to the exotic bird.

By 1541, the name was established, and the bird had become a delicacy. In France, it was known as cog d’ Inde, which meant rooster of India.

The turkey was domesticated by Indians in Mexico and the southwest United States.

It was introduced to Europe and England in 1524. Here it was bred into a meatier bird by the end of the 16th century.

The English settlers brought the turkey back to America, where they interbred with wild birds. The wild turkey and the Muscovy duck are the only birds that have been truly domesticated.

The colonists who came to America found an abundance of game, believing that they might have found Eden. Hunters found large flocks of turkeys, which were not all that wild.

Unlike England, where only the rich hunted on enclosed parks, anyone could hunt on open lands in America. The legal doctrine of ferae naturae made wild animals the property of those who captured them, not that of the landowner on whose land it was taken.

The habit of turkeys roosting in treetops made them easy targets and, with the advance of firearms, the turkey population plummeted.

By 1813, the turkey was gone in Connecticut and New York. By 1844 in Pennsylvania, turkeys were gone from the eastern counties.

By the start of the 20th century, the species was pushed into pockets in forested patches in the southern ridge and valley areas, and the population was estimated at 5,000 birds.

Next week, a great conservation story – the recovery of the turkey population.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.