On the Origin of Turkeys

Turkeys are a staple of the western holiday dinner table, especially associated with Thanksgiving in the United States. First domesticated in Mexico, the turkey was a central food of Mexican cuisine since 800 BC or earlier, and has appeared in the diet of Native North Americans since around 1100 AD. There is no clear answer as to how they received the English name “Turkey” or how they arrived in Europe; however, by the mid-1500s the turkey was well-known in England.

Turkeys, like other fowl, are bred heavily in domestication to produce specific ideal qualities. English writer and naturalist William Bernhardt Tegetmeier covers the history of the species and provides tips for what the ideal turkey should look like in The Poultry Book: comprising the breeding and management of profitable and ornamental poultry; to which is added “The standard of excellence in exhibition birds.” Tegetmeier’s work was influential in the study of bees and birds, with a focus on fowl and pigeons. Significantly, his work with pigeons put him contact with Charles Darwin, and Tegetmeier “provided…specimens, information, and contacts” about pigeon breeding to Darwin for On the Origin of Species and The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.[1]

On the Origin of Species was first published on November 24th, 1859. The groundbreaking scientific text introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection and presented the idea that all life had evolved over time from a common ancestor. The book and the theory proposed continue to spark debate for scientific and religious reasons, just as they did when they were first published, but the theories of evolution and natural selection were adopted quickly by the scientific community.

Darwin writes briefly about the qualities of turkeys he has observed in his voyage collecting information for On the Origin of Species. Interestingly, though, he mainly refers to turkey fowl as wild and in contrast to other domesticated fowl.[1]

The poultry book: comprising the breeding and management of profitable and ornamental poultry ; to which is added “The standard of excellence in exhibition birds” by W.B. Tegetmeir; With coloured illustrations by Harrison Weir. [Q. 636.5 T23p1873]

On the origin of the species by means of natural selection: or, The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life by Charles Darwin. Copy 2. [575 D25o1859]

[1] Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species (London: J. Murray, 1859), 216.

[1] Bodio, Stephen J., “Darwin’s Other Bird—The Domestic Pigeon,” All About Birds, 15 July 2009, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/darwins-other-bird-the-domestic-pigeon