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Subspecies of North American Wild Turkey
By David K. Nelson
The turkeys of North America are divided into five distinct subspecies. They differ slightly in size, color, and habits but the geographic regions where they inhabit also helps to distinguish them.
The Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallapavo silvestris) is one of the largest of the five subspecies. Adult males, or gobblers, may weigh 20 pounds or more. The body feathers of gobblers have a rich, metallic, copper/bronze iridescence. The tips of the tail feathers have a dark buff or chocolate brown color. Hens have a drab appearance to help camouflage them while setting on the nest. The Eastern wild turkey inhabits most of the eastern forest, from southern Canada to north Florida and westward to Texas, Iowa, and Minnesota. The Eastern subspecies of the wild turkey is the one that inhabits Alabama.
The Florida wild turkey (Meleagris gallapavo osceola), also called the Osceola, is found only on the peninsula of Florida. This subspecies of wild turkey was named for the Seminole Indian Chief Osceola. It is similar to the Eastern wild turkey, but smaller and darker in color, with wider black bars on the wing feathers. The large tail feathers are tipped with brown and are similar to the Eastern. These turkeys inhabit the piney woods, prairies and hardwood hammocks of south and central Florida.
The Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) is native to the brushy scrub of the southern Great Plains, western Texas, and northeastern Mexico. They may be found in elevations up to 6,000 feet in mountainous areas, but generally favor country that is more open than the woodland habitat favored by their Eastern cousins. Overall, Rio Grande turkeys are comparatively pale and copper colored. They are distinguished from the Eastern and Florida subspecies by having tail and rump feathers tipped with yellowish buff or tan color. Rio Grande turkeys may form large flocks of several hundred birds during the winter months and may range several miles from roosting sites each day.
The Merriam’s wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) is found primarily in the ponderosa pine, western mountain regions of the United States. Adult males are distinguished from the Eastern, Florida, and Rio Grande by the nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins. It is comparable in size to the Eastern turkey, but has a blacker appearance with blue purple and bronze reflections.
Archeologists believe that about 2,000 years ago the Native Americans of the southwestern United States domesticated a turkey similar to the wild Merriam’s turkey. When the Spanish explored southern Mexico in the middle 1500s, they found tame turkeys being kept by Native Americans throughout that area. This now extinct turkey of southern Mexico (Meleagris gallopavo gallopavo) is believed to be the ancestral stock of the domestic turkey that the Spanish encountered. This domesticated turkey was brought back to Spain and was widely accepted throughout Europe. The domesticated turkey was brought back to America by the English colonists of the Atlantic seaboard.
The Gould’s turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana) is found in portions of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as northern Mexico. The Gould’s turkey is a bird of the mountainous areas of this region. It is the largest of the five 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 that usually separate to show an “eyelash” appearance. Lower back and rump feathers have copper and greenish-gold reflections, unlike the faintly iridescent velvety black found on the Merriam’s. Gould’s body plumage is somewhat blue-green in coloration.
The Ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is a different species than the other wild turkeys of North America. The Ocellated turkey only exists in a 50,000 square mile area of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The Ocellated turkey is easily distinguished from its North American cousins in appearance. The body feathers of both male and female birds have a bronze-green iridescence. The tail feathers in both sexes are blue-gray in color, with a well-defined eye-shaped, blue-bronze colored spot near the end, followed with a bright gold tip.