Get to Know the Turkey Species You Don't Eat


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Let’s talk turkey. Not the one that’ll be on your plate on Thursday—the other turkey. There are only two living species of turkey: Meleagris gallopavo, or the wild turkey, which is the one we domesticated and eat with stuffing, and the one which most Americans are familiar with. And then there’s Meleagris ocellata, or the ocellated turkey, which isn’t as well known.

For anyone who thinks turkeys are dull, the ocellated turkey is a vibrant counterpoint. The flashier looking of the two turkeys, it has iridescent bronze, blue, and green feathers, eye spots on the tail feathers (from which it gets its name), a powder blue head dotted with orange and red nodules, and a bright red ring around the eyes. And instead of gobbling like their cousins, ocellated turkeys have a repertoire of vocalizations that include low, nasal “puts,” whistles, beeps, “hee-haw” sounds and a mating call composed of bassy drumming sounds followed by a trill. Zoologist A. Starker Leopold described this last call as sounding like “ting-ting-ting—co-on-cot-zitl-glung," with the last note “having a bell-like quality.” 

While the wild turkey is usually considered one of the great conservation success stories, the ocellated turkey is faring less well. After unregulated hunting and habitat destruction dwindled the wild turkey’s numbers to approximately 30,000 birds in the early 20th century, conservation groups and government agencies worked for decades to restore populations. Today 7,000,000 wild turkeys roam North America and have even expanded into states that didn’t have them before. The ocellated turkey, which only lives on some 50,000 square miles of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, northern Guatemala and western Belize, faces the same threats that plagued its cousin—poaching, unregulated hunting and loss of habitat to timber operations, agriculture, and land development—but protecting it is harder because so little is known about the species. Population levels are hard to gauge because much of the turkey’s territory is hard to access, and behavioral studies have usually been done in reserves and protected areas where the birds are used to humans and might not act the same way as truly wild ones. 

While more research is needed to figure out the best conservation strategies, reserves may be the biggest help to ocellated turkeys for now, even if the birds there are semi-tame. The turkeys are common in Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, the site of Mayan ruins. The droves of tourists that visit the park and the guards stationed there to prevent looting both help to keep poachers away and give the turkeys a safe place to live, breed and go “ting-ting-ting—co-on-cot-zitl-glung.”