The Wild Turkey
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Photo Credit: National Wild Turkey Federation
In the early 1900s, wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) populations declined significantly throughout the United States, due to habitat destruction and unregulated subsistence hunting.
In 1935, the Virginia Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit initiated a research effort on wild turkey restoration. Soon after, other wildlife agencies followed Virginia's lead and developed wild turkey research projects to determine breeding patterns, habitat needs and restoration ideas.
Early restoration efforts focused on releasing pen-raised birds, but efforts were met with extreme disappointment due to poor survival rates among the pen-raised birds. This approach hampered the wild turkey's comeback for nearly two decades. It took the creation of the cannon net before wildlife agencies could successfully begin restoration of wild turkey populations by trapping and transferring large flocks of wild turkeys to areas of suitable habitat. However, management research and identification of suitable habitat for turkeys made these cannon net relocation efforts possible.
The trap-and-transfer programs initiated by wildlife agencies in the 1950s have increased wild turkey populations to huntable levels across the United States and Canada. Wild turkeys are now hunted in 49 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces and portions of Mexico, where restoration efforts are just beginning.
The comeback of wild turkeys in North America is arguably the greatest conservation success story in history. It is estimated that there are more than 7 million wild turkeys in the United States, Canada and Mexico primarily due to the success of state and provincial restoration programs, improved habitat management and increased conservation efforts focusing on population status assessment and harvest regulation.
In 2004, it was estimated that wild turkeys populated 750 million acres of suitable habitat, with only 5 million acres (less than 1 percent) of suitable habitat remaining uninhabited.
Today, almost half of all jurisdictions containing wild turkeys lack a turkey management plan, and less than half of these existing turkey plans incorporate habitat management or land protection. These deficiencies clearly highlight the need for a coordinated plan to partner interested groups to ensure the health and viability of wild turkeys for future generations.
Species and Subspecies
There are only two species of wild turkey in the world; the North American wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), divided into five distinct subspecies, and the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata).
EASTERN WILD TURKEY
Photo Credit: Brian Machanic/National Wild Turkey Federation
Eastern Wild Turkey
The Eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most widely distributed, abundant and hunted wild turkey subspecies in the United States. Since the eastern wild turkey ranges the farthest north,
individuals can also grow to be among the largest of any of
the subspecies. It inhabits roughly the eastern half of the country. It's found in hardwood and mixed forests from New England, 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 orginal range including: California, Oregon and Washington.
Population: 5.1 to 5.3 million wild turkeys
Download the NWTF's Eastern Wildlife Bulletin
OSCEOLA (FLORIDA) WILD TURKEY
Photo Credit: Bob Lollo/National Wild Turkey Federation
Florida Wild Turkey
The Osceola wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), also referred to as the Florida, is found only on the peninsula of Florida. 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 and broken, and do not extend all the way to the feather shaft. The black bars predominate 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.
Population: 80,000 to 100,000 wild turkeys
Download the NWTF's Osceola Wildlife Bulletin
RIO GRANDE WILD TURKEY
Photo Credit: Albert Lavallee/National Wild Turkey Federation
Rio Grande Wild Turkey
The Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) is native to the central plains states and received its common name from the area in which it is found - the life giving water supply that borders the brushy scrub, arid country of the southern Great Plains, western Texas and northeastern Mexico. It's 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. 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.
Population: 1,022,700 to 1,025,700 wild turkeys
Download the NWTF's Rio Grande Wildlife Bulletin
MERRIAM'S WILD TURKEY
Photo Credit: National Wild Turkey Federation
Merriam's Wild Turkey
The Merriam's wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) is found primarily in the ponderosa pine and western mountain regions of the United States. It has been successfully stocked beyond its suspected natural range in the Rocky 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.
Population: 334,460 to 344,460 wild turkeys
Download the NWTF's Merriam's Wildlife Bulletin
GOULD'S WILD TURKEY
Photo Credit: Steve Sharp/National Wild Turkey Federation
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. 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 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.
Population: 650 to 800 wild turkeys
Download the NWTF's Gould's Wildlife Bulletin
OCELLATED WILD TURKEY
Photo Credit: Jorge Luis Guerrero Salcedo/National Wild Turkey Federation
Ocellated Wild Turkey
The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) 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. It exists only in a 50,000 square mile area comprised of the Yucatan Peninsula range in the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan, as well as parts of southern Tabasco and northeastern Chiapas. 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.
Download the NWTF's Ocellated Wildlife Bulletin