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Wild Turkey Species and Subspecies
written by National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF)

Can you name and describe each wild turkey species and subspecies?
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There are only two species of turkey in the world: the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), which is divided into five distinct subspecies (Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam's and Gould's), and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata), which is found only in Central America.

Eastern Wild Turkey

Eastern Wild Turkey

Eastern Wild Turkey

The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most widely distributed, abundant and hunted subspecies of the five distinct subspecies found in the United States. It inhabits roughly the eastern half of the country.

The eastern wild turkey is found in hardwood and mixed forests from New England and southern Canada and northern Florida in the east to Texas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota in the west. It has also been successfully transplanted in states outside of its original range, including California, Oregon and Washington.

L.J.P. Vieillot first described and named the eastern subspecies in 1817 using the Latin term silvestris, meaning "forest" turkey.

The eastern wild turkey ranges the farthest north, and individuals can grow to be among the largest of any of the subspecies. The adult male, commonly referred to as a gobbler or tom, may measure up to 4 feet tall at maturity and weigh more than 20 pounds. Its upper tail coverts, which cover the base of the long tail feathers, are tipped with chestnut brown and its tail feathers are tipped with dark buff or chocolate brown. In contrast, its breast feathers are tipped in black. Rich, metallic and copper/bronze iridescence characterize other body feathers.

The primary wing feathers have white and black bars that extend from the outer edge of each all the way to the shaft. Secondary wing feathers have prominent white bars and are edged in white, producing a whitish triangular area on each side of the back when the wings are folded on the back.

A mature female, called a hen, may be nearly as tall but is usually lighter, weighing between eight and twelve pounds. Females are similar in color to the males but more brown, and the metallic reflections are less brilliant. Feathers of the hen's breast, flanks and sides are tipped with brown rather than the black and white tips of the male.

Osceola (Florida) Wild Turkey

Florida Wild Turkey

Osceola (Florida) Wild Turkey

The Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), also referred to as the Osceola, is found only on the peninsula of Florida. W.E.D. Scott, who named it for the famous Seminole Chief Osceola, first described this particular subspecies in 1890. It was Chief Osceola who led his tribe against the Americans in a 20-year war beginning in 1835.

It's similar to the eastern wild turkey, but is smaller and darker in color with less white veining in the wing quills. The white bars in these feathers are narrow, irregular, broken and do not extend all the way to the feather shaft. The black bars dominate the feather. Secondary wing feathers are also dark. When the wings are folded on the back, there are no whitish triangular patches as seen on the eastern.

Feathers of the Florida turkey show more iridescent green and red colors, with less bronze than the eastern. The dark color of the tail coverts and the large tail feathers tipped in brown are similar to the eastern, but unlike the lighter colors of the three western subspecies. Its colorations and behavior are ideal for the flat pine woods, oak and palmetto hammocks and swamp habitats of Florida. Adult females, or hens, are similar to the males but duller and lighter colored throughout, except wing feathers, which are darker.

The reproductive cycle for the Florida wild turkey begins only slightly earlier than for the eastern wild turkey in other southern states. However, in southern Florida, turkeys gobble during warm spells in January, several weeks before actual mating. Egg laying is mainly in April with the cycle complete and peak hatching occurring in May.

Rio Grande Wild Turkey

Rio Grande

Rio Grande Wild Turkey

The Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) is native to the central plains states and got its common name from the area in which it is found -- the life giving water supply which borders the brushy scrub, arid country of the southern Great Plains, western Texas and northeastern Mexico. This subspecies was first described by George B. Sennett in 1879 who said it was intermediate in appearance between the eastern and western subspecies, hence its scientific name.

It is similar in general appearance to the other subspecies of the wild turkey and similar in body size to the Florida Turkey (about four feet tall, but with disproportionately long legs). The Rio Grande turkeys are comparatively pale and copper colored. They are distinguished from the eastern and Florida subspecies by having tail feathers and tail/rump coverts tipped with yellowish-buff or tan color rather than medium or dark brown. Although there has been more variation in the shade of buff/brown in the tail feathers among Rio specimens, the color is consistently lighter than in the eastern or Florida birds and darker than the same feathers in the Merriam's or Gould's subspecies.

Adult females, called hens, are smaller in size compared to the males, called gobblers, and similar in color but duller. Hens average 8 to 12 pounds while gobblers may weigh around 20 pounds at maturity. Feathers of the breast, sides and flanks are tipped with pale pinkish buff.

The Rio inhabits brush areas near streams and rivers or mesquite, pine and scrub oak forests. It may be found up to 6,000 feet elevation and generally favors country that is more open than the wooded habitat favored by its eastern cousins. The Rio Grande is considered gregarious and, nomadic in some areas, having distinct summer and winter ranges. They may form large flocks of several hundred birds during the winter period. It has been known to travel distances of 10 or more miles from traditional winter roost sites to its nesting areas.

Merriam's Wild Turkey

Merriams

Merriam's Wild Turkey

The Merriam's wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) is found primarily in the ponderosa pine, western mountain regions of the United States. It was named by Dr. E.W. Nelson in 1900 in honor of C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey.

Within its suspected historic range in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, the Merriam's was relatively isolated from the other subspecies of wild turkey. Current evidence supports the hypothesis that it was a relative newcomer to western American wildlife when the Europeans discovered it.

The Merriam's wild turkey has been successfully stocked beyond its suspected natural range in the Rocky Mountains and outside of the mountains into Nebraska, Washington, California Oregon and other areas.

Merriam's are found in some habitat areas that, if altered by timber harvesting overgrazing or development, populations may be lost. Their normal range receives annual rainfall amounts averaging between 15 and 23 inches.

Adult males are clearly distinguished from the Eastern, Florida and Rio Grande subspecies by the nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins. Merriam's closely resemble the Gould's turkey, but its tail margin is not usually quite as pure white, nor is the lighter margin of the tail tip quite as wide.

Its size is comparable to the Eastern turkey, but has a blacker appearance with blue, purple and bronze reflections. The Merriam's appears to have a white rump due to its pinkish, buff or whitish tail coverts and tips. These tail feather tips are very conspicuous when the strutting gobbler appears against a dark background. The males exhibit black-tipped breast feathers, while the females, or hens, have buff-tipped breast feathers. The white areas on her wings are more extensive, giving a whiter appearance to the folded wing.

Gould's Wild Turkey

Gould

Gould's Wild Turkey

The fifth recognized, but least known, wild turkey subspecies is the Gould's (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana) found in portions of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as northern Mexico. It was first described by J. Gould in 1856 during his travels in Mexico.

Like the Merriam's, the Gould's is a bird of the mountains. It exists in very small numbers along the U.S./Mexico borders in Arizona and New Mexico, but is abundant in the northwestern portions of Mexico. The Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service, the Centro Ecologico de Sonora, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other agencies are working cooperatively to reintroduce a strong Gould's population into Arizona and eventually other states where suitable range exists.

The Gould's turkey is the largest of the 5 subspecies and resembles the Merriam's turkey. They have longer legs, larger feet and larger center tail feathers than any of the other wild turkey subspecies in North America. Gould's differ by having distinctive white tips on the tail feathers and tail rump coverts, which usually separate to show an "eyelash" appearance. Lower back and rump feathers have copper and greenish-golden reflections, not like the faintly iridescent velvety black found on the Merriam's. Gould's body plumage is said to be somewhat blue-green in coloration. Adult females have a less pronounced metallic greenish and reddish sheen and are more purplish.

The Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains in Mexico are the center of the Gould's turkey Mexican range, extending south from the U.S./Mexico border. Populations exist in Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, Nayarit, Jalisco and Coahuila. In the United States, Gould's turkeys are found in the Animas and San Luis mountains of New Mexico and in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico and Arizona.

Ocellated Wild Turkey

Ocellated

Ocellated Turkey

There are only two species of turkey in the world: the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), which is divided into five distinct subspecies, and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). The ocellated turkey is known by several different names that vary by Central American locale: pavo, pavo ocelado, or its Mayan Indian name, ucutz il chican. Very little research has been done on the ocellated and less is known about the ecology of this turkey than any of the five subspecies of North American wild turkeys, including the Gould's. The National Wild Turkey Federation, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Hornocker Wildlife Institute, helped sponsor the first research project to trap and place radio transmitters on ocellated turkeys in Guatemala in 1993. Much of the information provided in this bulletin is a result of this NWTF-sponsored study.

The ocellated turkey exists only in a 50,000 square mile area comprised of the Yucatan Peninsula range includes the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan, as well as parts of southern Tabasco and northeastern Chiapas.

The ocellated turkey is easily distinguished from its North American cousin in appearance. The body feathers of both male and female birds have a bronze-green iridescent color mixture, although females sometimes appear duller in color with more green than bronze pigments. Unlike North American turkeys, breast feathers of male and female ocellated turkeys do not differ and cannot be used to determine sex. Neither male nor female birds have a beard.

Tail feathers in both sexes are bluish-gray in color with a well defined, eye-shaped, blue-bronze colored spot near the end followed by bright gold tip. The tail feather spots are similar to those seen on peacock feathers, which led some scientists to once believe the ocellated was more related to peafowl than turkeys. In fact, these spots helped give the ocellated its name, as the Latin word for eye is oculus.

The upper, major secondary wing coverts, or wing bar, are a rich copper color and highly iridescent. The barring on primary and secondary wing feathers is similar to North American turkeys, but the secondaries contain more white coloration, especially on the outer edges.

Both sexes have a blue-colored head and neck with distinctive orange to red, warty, carbuncle-like growths, called nodules, but they are more pronounced on males. The head of the male also has a fleshy blue crown behind the snood, which is adorned with yellow-orange nodules similar to those on the neck. During breeding season, this crown enlarges and the coloration of the nodules becomes more pronounced. Ocellated turkeys also have a distinct eye-ring of bright red colored skin, especially visible on adult males during the breeding season.

Legs of ocellated turkeys are shorter and thinner than North American wild turkeys and are deep red in color. Legs of adult males also have pronounced spurs, longer and more attenuated than those of North American gobblers. Spur lengths in males over 1 year old average at least 1.5 inches. Spurs longer than two inches have been recorded.

Ocellated turkeys are significantly smaller than any of the five subspecies of North American wild turkeys. Adult hens weigh approximately 8 pounds just prior to egg-laying and nesting and about 6-7 pounds the remainder of the year. During the breeding season adult males weigh approximately 11-12 pounds.

Wild Turkey Range Map

eastern key
Eastern Subspecies

osceola key
Osceola Subspecies
Rio Grande key
Rio Grande  Subspecies

Merriam
Merriam's Subspecies

Gould
Gould's
Subspecies

Ocellated key
Ocellated
Turkey

hybrid
Hybridized
Subspecies

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