Thanksgiving and a Tale of Two Turkeys

Displaying Wild Turkey, Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo Bob Bowers)

Displaying Wild Turkey, Madera Canyon, Arizona (photo Bob Bowers)

When November rolls around, thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, being thankful and, inevitably, turkeys.  Whether turkeys think about our holiday has yet to be proven, and except for the annually-pardoned White House bird, domestic turkeys have no reason to be grateful.  On the other hand, most of their wild cousins have plenty of reasons to be thankful.  Give or take, about 7 million reasons.

Worldwide, there are two species of turkeys:  the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata).  The species we are most familiar with is the Wild Turkey, a resident of all 50 states, Canada and Mexico, while the Ocellated Turkey’s range is limited to some 50,000 square miles of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Technicolored Ocellated Turkey, Calakmul, Mexico (photo Prudy Bowers)

Technicolored Ocellated Turkey, Calakmul, Mexico (photo Prudy Bowers)

About the same size as Wild Turkeys (up to four feet in length), the Ocellated species is the trimmer of the two.  The males run about 11 pounds (females about 7) compared with 16 and 9 pounds for their cousins.  In ‘A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America’, Steve Howell’s description of the Ocellated suggests a Halloween witch:  ‘horn nail, naked head and upper neck, blue and orange warts and an inflatable forehead wattle hanging over a black bill.’  But then he describes the iridescent plumage and you realize this is one beautiful bird.

Yucatan's Endemic Ocellated Turkey (photo Prudy Bowers)

Yucatan’s Endemic Ocellated Turkey (photo Prudy Bowers)

In his short write up of the Ocellated Turkey, Howell uses 16 descriptive colors: black, blue, orange, reddish pink, metallic blue-black, blue-green, golden metallic green, burnished copper, dark brown, white, vermiculated grey, violet-blue, flesh, orange-red, metallic sheen and grey-brown.  I probably missed a couple.  Our Wild Turkeys are colorful, too, but they’re blown away by the Ocellated.  Unfortunately, this sister species to our Wild Turkey is losing ground, figuratively and literally.  Precise population numbers are unknown, but habitat loss and subsistence hunting have led to an estimated 50% reduction during the last century, perhaps leaving as few as 20,000 breeding adult birds, and it is now considered threatened by Mexico.  Fortunately, we got to enjoy these spectacular birds in January, spotting a couple in the jungle near the Mayan ruins at Calakmul, 22 miles north of Guatemala.

Bearded male Wild Turkey, Madera Canyon (photo Bob Bowers)

Bearded male Wild Turkey, Madera Canyon (photo Bob Bowers)

The Wild Turkey suffered a crisis of its own, due to unregulated hunting.  Over-hunting nearly led to extirpation of American turkeys by the 1930s, prompting a desperate attempt by state wildlife agencies to save the bird.  First attempts to rescue the turkey consisted of releasing pen-raised birds, but the near-domesticated turkeys couldn’t survive in the wild. This failure was finally reversed 20 years later by capturing wild turkeys in one area for release in other, non-populated locations.  Ironically, the biggest boost to the Wild Turkey’s recovery came in 1973, with the founding of the National Wild Turkey Foundation, established primarily to protect the future of turkey hunting. The NWTF is a nonprofit conservation and hunting organization, and its efforts, together with that of other state and conservation organizations has proven enormously successful. The number of Wild Turkeys that had recovered to about 1 million birds by 1973 is now estimated by the NWTF at more than 7 million. On Thanksgiving, the Wild Turkey does in fact have reasons to be thankful.

In Arizona, we have two of the six sub-species of Wild Turkey, merriami (Merriam’s) and Mexicana (Gould’s).  Gould’s were a table favorite of miners, and by the time Arizona regulated hunting in 1929, they were non-existent north of Mexico.  An active capture and release program is slowly restoring our population of this species, which now numbers about a thousand birds.

Although hunting in Arizona is permitted for both native species, it is strongly restricted and tightly controlled. During two limited seasons in spring and fall, permits for a single bearded male turkey annually are available only by lottery. In addition to being lucky, you need a fat wallet.  License and tag fees are ‘just’ $75, but then you need a finely patterned, camouflaged shotgun, ‘quite expensive’ ammunition, and, to maximize success, a guide ($2,100 for a 3-day Tucson-based expert).  Makes a free-range grocery store bird look like a bargain.

(This article originally appeared in the November, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)


About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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