Birds of Shakespeare: The wild turkey

Wild turkey
Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo Mexicana) by Missy Dunaway, 30×22 inches, acrylic ink on paper

With the wild turkey, we continue following artist Missy Dunaway on a bird-watching expedition through Shakespeare’s works. Supported by a 2021 Folger artist-in-residence fellowship, her growing collection of paintings aims to catalog every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems—at least 65 species. Read more on the Collation blog about Dunaway’s approach and research using the Folger collection. To find natural science facts about each species as well as paintings of more birds in the series, visit her website BirdsofShakespeare.com.


Shakespeare uses the word “turkey” five times. One is in reference to the country, bringing the turkey’s tally to just four appearances in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

It is generally accepted that the first turkey was introduced to Britain in 1526 by William Strickland of Yorkshire.[1] Strickland sailed to North America with the Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot before pursuing a life of Puritanism and politics in England.[2] His family crest, designed in 1550, depicts a large turkey—one of the first portrayals of a turkey in Europe.[3]

Dr. Malene Lauritsen of the University of Exeter explains that the turkey was first admired as a “New World” curiosity.[4] It was found pecking around wealthy homes as a status symbol and replaced the peacock on royal menus.[5] The turkey is easier to domesticate and herd than peacocks and it breeds up to 14 chicks in a single brood, so it trickled down to common dinner tables by the late 1500s.[6] The tradition of having turkey for Christmas started in England and carried over to the American colonies.[7]

Despite the buzz, the turkey has sparse representation in Renaissance folklore. Perhaps it had not been part of the British landscape long enough to inspire folktales in time for Shakespeare’s use. Shakespeare’s text seemingly only alludes to the turkey’s proud appearance and stately feathers—a superficial depiction compared to the storied cuckoo, for example. The description of a male turkey “jetting,” or strutting, under his “advanced plumes” unmistakably recalls the proudly puffed male turkey.

(Twelfth Night, Act II, scene 5, line 29)

FABIAN: O, peace! Contemplation makes a rare
turkey-cock of him: how he jets under his advanced
plumes!

(Henry V, Act 5, scene 1, line 15)

GOWER: Why, here he comes, swelling like a turkey-cock.

When I searched the Folger Shakespeare Library’s LUNA Digital Image Collection and British Book Illustrations Collection for inspiration, I encountered handwritten turkey recipes and charming ink drawings of male turkeys with fanned tails.

drawing of turkeys surrounded by other birds
A male and female turkey within a crowd of rowdy feathered friends, by Antoine Le Grand in An entire body of philosophy, according to the principles of the famous Renate Des Cartes (1694). Folger Shakespeare Library

James Edmund Harting states that turkeys were sometimes confused with guinea fowl, and the names “turkey” and “guinea” were interchangeable.[8] Further complicating matters, “guinea” was sometimes used as another word for a peacock.[9] Was Shakespeare referring to one species, two, or all three? The turkey (Meleagris gallopavo Mexicana), guinea fowl (Numida meleagri), and peacock (Pavo cristatus) were imported to the British Isles during Shakespeare’s lifetime from North America, Africa, and Greece, respectively.[10] He uses the words “turkey,” “guinea-hen,” and “peacock,” individually, so I plan to represent all three species in my Birds of Shakespeare painting collection.

I wanted to capture Shakespeare’s interpretation of the turkey in my painting, so I focused on the feathers. I depict a strutting male turkey, or “stag,” framed by a bouquet of feathers drawn from life, using specimens collected in my backyard in Maine. I also included examples of the turkey’s diet. English oak produces acorns, the turkey’s primary source of sustenance in the fall and winter.[12] Oak, burdock, and chestnut offered the double significance of being plants mentioned by Shakespeare. When drawing plants, I refer to the Folger’s LUNA Digital Image Collection, John Gerard’s Of the Historie of Plants (1597), The Florilegium of Alexander Marshal at Windsor Castle (c. 1620-1682), and Basilius Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (1613) to capture how each species looked in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

I found so many turkey-related recipes in LUNA Digital Image Collection, I am tempted to try one out for Thanksgiving. Wishing the readers of Shakespeare & Beyond a very happy and festive holiday!

manuscript cookbook with turkey recipe
Elizabeth Fowler’s recipe for “Seasoning for a turkey pie” (1684). Folger Shakespeare Library

[1] Peach, Howard. Curious Tales of Old East Yorkshire, (Wilmslow, Cheshire: Sigma Press, 2001), 53.

[2] Peach, Howard. Curious Tales of Old East Yorkshire, (Wilmslow, Cheshire: Sigma Press, 2001), 53.

[3] Peach, Howard. Curious Tales of Old East Yorkshire, (Wilmslow, Cheshire: Sigma Press, 2001), 53.

[4] Cash, Cassidy. “Episode 31: Shakespeare Eating Turkey with Guest Malene Lauritsen.” That Shakespeare Life. Podcast audio, November 19, 2018.

[5] Cash, Cassidy. “Episode 31: Shakespeare Eating Turkey with Guest Malene Lauritsen.” That Shakespeare Life. Podcast audio, November 19, 2018.

[6] Cash, Cassidy. “Episode 31: Shakespeare Eating Turkey with Guest Malene Lauritsen.” That Shakespeare Life. Podcast audio, November 19, 2018.

[7] Cash, Cassidy. “Episode 31: Shakespeare Eating Turkey with Guest Malene Lauritsen.” That Shakespeare Life. Podcast audio, November 19, 2018.

[8] Harting, James Edmund. The Ornithology of Shakespeare. (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 176.

[9] Cash, Cassidy. “Episode 31: Shakespeare Eating Turkey with Guest Malene Lauritsen.” That Shakespeare Life. Podcast audio, November 19, 2018.

[10] Harting, James Edmund. The Ornithology of Shakespeare. (London: John Van Voorst, Paternoster Row, 1871), 176.

[11] “Wild Turkey.” All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/overview. Accessed Nov 6, 2022.

[12] “Wild Turkey.” All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/overview. Accessed Nov 6, 2022.