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When Europeans first encountered turkeys in the Americas they incorrectly identified the birds as a type of guineafowl, also known as Turkey fowl (or Turkey hen and Turkey cock) from their importation to Central Europe through Turkey, and that name, shortened to just the name of the country, stuck as the name of the bird.

The confusion between these kinds of birds from related but different families is also reflected in the scientific name for the turkey genus: meleagris is Greek for guineafowl. The domesticated turkey is attributed to Aztec agriculture, which addressed one subspecies of Meleagris gallopavo local to the present day states of Jalisco and Guerrero.

The names for M. gallopavo in other languages also frequently reflect its exotic origins, seen from an Old World viewpoint, and add to the confusion about where turkeys actually came from. The many references to India seen in common names go back to a combination of two factors: first, the genuine belief that the newly-discovered Americas were in fact a part of Asia, and second, the tendency during that time to attribute exotic animals and foods to a place that symbolized far-off, exotic lands.

The name given to a group of turkeys is a rafter, although they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a gobble or flock.