The Turkey

In the United States this week we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, and as its icon is the turkey, I thought I would do a little tracing of the turkey through the history of science. I found some rather old pictures!

In case you forgot what a wild one looks like:

Gary M. Stolz, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


When I first began looking into it, I found a book called The Turkey: An American Story by Andrew Smith (University of Illinois Press, 2006), which follows the turkey – especially as food! – from its wild origins, its domestication by Native Americans, its transplantations to the Old World and its incorporation into European diets, and its later life as it was subjected to modern farming, breeding, and diet. The book doesn’t spend much time with the turkey as a scientific object, but the several pages he did write proved fruitful to finding some of these early images (which he did not publish in the book).

According to Andrew Smith (pp. 23-24), the first person to describe the turkey scientifically was Pierre Gilles in 1533 and he called it Gallo peregrino. Its first depictions appeared a little over twenty years later, simultaneously in the works of Conrad Gessner, who is one of the more famous early modern natural history encyclopedists, and Pierre Belon, who according to both Wikipedia and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (Gillespie, 1970), founded both embryology and comparative anatomy! (I doubt it.)

Unfortunately, due to limited time, I have not been able to translate any of the writings, and the little I have done has not been interesting enough to include. So, what follows is a bunch of images!

Pierre Belon du Mans, L’histoire de la nature des oyseaux1555:

Belon's Turkey

The work of Conrad Gessner’s owned by the Wangensteen Historical Library at the University of Minnesota (and you should visit if you’re in Minneapolis!) does not include the 1555 work (which does not seem to be online), but they do own some later works, though I do not know if these are the same images used in the 1555 publication of Histoire animaliumGesnerus redivivus auctus & emendatus (1669) and . Whether or not the images used in these books were the same used in 1555 is unclear, but here are the images anyway:

Conrad Gessner and George Holst, Gesnerus redivivus auctus & emendatus1669p. 464 (image courtesy of Wangensteen Historical Library):

Gesner's Turkey (1)

Conrad Gessner, Icones avium omnium quæ in historia avium (included in Nomenclator aquatilium animantium (1606)), pp. 208-209. Male on left, female (with egg!) on right (image courtesy of Wangensteen Historical Library):

Gesner's turkeys

Ulysse Aldrovandi in 1599-1603 provided a thorough description of the turkey, as well as images of both male and female. As you might notice, the image of the female is rather close to Gesner’s, but there are differences; it appears that one was copied indirectly from the other. Aldrovandi names the plant: some species of Melampyrum, or cow-wheat; I suspect M. arvense. (As useful as binomial nomenclature is, with the many changes wrought by Linnaeus (and his ego?), many names do not cross the boundary pre- and post-Linnaeus. This is perhaps an instance where common names would be helpful!)

Ulysse Aldrovandi, Ornithologiae, 1599-1603, pp. 39-40 (image courtesy Wangensteen Historical Library):

Aldrovandi's Turkeys

Linnaeus, the inventor (roughly) of modern scientific naming, provided no depictions in his work, but here is a snapshot of when the turkey receives its official scientific (Latin) name: Meleagris gallopavo.

Carl von Linné, Systema naturae (10th ed.), 1758-1759, pp. 156-157:

Linnaeus Turkey

There isn’t much immediate information regarding the Frederik Kielsen, but I liked his image.

Frederik Christian Kielsen, Icones avium: indecem systematicum, 1835, Pl. XII (p. 22):

Kielsen's Turkey

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper American bird post without Audubon’s take.

John James Audubon, The Birds of AmericaFirst image (a different version here), second image; both from the 1840s:

I’m reluctant to admit, but as admired as Audubon is, I prefer the work of John Gould. He is most famously known as a collaborator of Charles Darwin’s, who not only published the bird specimens that Darwin collected while aboard the Beagle, but also who figured out Darwin’s finches. Here is his turkey, although I could not locate from where it was originally published (image courtesy Brooklyn Museum):

Gould's Turkey

So there you go! A history of turkeys via images in scientific texts!

And to top it off, here’s a video:

Edit: Bonus Turkey!:

One thought on “The Turkey

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