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Turkeys And Humans

Because of their large size and mild-tasting flesh, turkeys have long been hunted by humans as food and for sport. Until recently, wild common turkeys were badly overhunted in North America. This caused the wild populations of turkeys to decline over large areas, a resource collapse that was especially intense during the nineteenth century. Turkey populations were also badly damaged wherever there were extensive conversions of their forest habitat into agriculture, a change that has occurred over widespread regions.

Today, common turkeys do not occupy much of their former range, and they generally occur as isolated populations in fragmented habitats. However, turkeys have been re-introduced to many areas from which they were eliminated, and also to some regions to which they were not native. These introductions, coupled with controls over hunting pressures, have allowed substantial increases in the populations of wild turkeys over much of their North American range.

It is not known when the common turkey was first domesticated, but this had already been accomplished by indigenous peoples of Mexico long before the Spanish conquest. The first turkeys viewed by Europeans were apparently those domestic birds, some of which were taken to Europe for display and cultivation as a novel and tasty food from the New World. The turkeys that are raised intensively today are derived from Mexican wild turkeys. Most domestic turkeys are white, although some varieties are black. Domestic turkeys have been artificially selected to have large amounts of meat, especially on the breast.

If the turkey came from the Americas, how did this bird receive its common name, which implies a Turkish origin? During the sixteenth century, when the domestic turkey was first introduced to England, the bird was thought to resemble the helmeted guinea fowl (Numida meleagris). This species had been kept domestically since the fourth century B.C., but had disappeared from Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portuguese traders re-introduced domestic guinea fowl to Europe, using birds that had been obtained in the region of Turkey. The common name in England of these re-introduced guinea fowl was "turkey," and this name was transferred to the superficially similar domestic turkey of the Americas when it was introduced somewhat later on.

Bill Freedman

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