Birds – The Wild Turkey

The largest of our game birds is the wild turkey which  ranges in eastern North America, or rather once did, from Maine, southern Wisconsin, and Dakota southward to the Gulf and westward over Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona into the table-lands of Mexico, being represented in Central America by the very distinct monotypic Ocellated Turkey. When this country was first settled the Wild Turkey was found abundantly in many localities, such as southern New England and the states of the Middle West, but with the advent of civilization it has greatly decreased, until it is now practically extinct north of the Ohio River, and even in the Middle and Southern States it is comparatively rare, being mainly confined to the thinly settled and wooded mountainous districts. Originally it does not appear to have been particularly wild, but continued and persistent persecution has made it excessively shy and difficult of approach. It is perhaps most abundant now in portions of Florida, Indian Territory, and Texas, but at the present outlook it seems not improbable that the close of the twentieth century may see it practically extinct in a wild state. It is resident where found, inhabiting by preference rather mixed woods, where it seeks its food of acorns, beechnuts, seeds, nuts, berries, and insects of various kinds, often scratching extensively amongst the leaves. The males are polygamous and often engage in fierce battles for the favor of the females, and may often be seen in the display attitudes so characteristic of the domestic bird. The nest is a very simple affair, though often artfully concealed, consisting of a hollow scratched in the ground to a depth of two or three inches and lined with a few grasses and dead leaves. The eggs appear to vary in number from seven to fifteen, though as many as twenty-six have been reported, but these were probably deposited by two females. The young are cared for almost entirely by the female, and usually but a single brood is reared in a season, unless the first happens to be destroyed.

The Wild Turkey is so similar to the ordinary domesticated race, except that the tail-feathers are tipped with chestnut or rusty brown, that an extensive description is unnecessary. While there are some differences of opinion as to the number of recognizable forms, it appears that at least six are entitled to such distinction. Of these the first to be made known was apparently the form (Meleagris gallopavo), occurring in the moist, semitropical parts of the state of Vera Cruz, Mexico. On the western slope of the Mexican table-land is a form known as the Mexican Turkey (M. g. mexicana), of which very little has been recorded. In the Rio Grande Turkey (M. g. intermedia), which ranges over the lowlands of southern Texas and northeastern Mexico, the tips of the tail-coverts and the tail are rusty buff, while in Merriam’s Turkey (M. g. merriami) of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, these feathers are tipped with whitish. The best-known form is the Common Wild Turkey (M. g. silvestris), which ranges throughout the eastern United States, from Pennsylvania to central Florida, and west to Nebraska and northeastern Texas, in which the tips of the tail-coverts and tail-feathers are rusty brown or chestnut, this being replaced in southern Florida by the Florida Wild Turkey (M. g. osceola), which differs from the last in being of somewhat smaller size and in having the primaries with narrow broken, instead of broad and entire, bars of white, and in the longer, more curved, and much sharper spurs.

The only other member of the group, and this by far the handsomest, is the Ocellated Turkey (Agriocharis ocellata) of Yucatan and adjacent parts of Guatemala and British Honduras. In this the bare head and neck are deep blue, covered with bright orange or orange-red warts, and the erectile wattle between the eyes is also deep blue tipped with yellow. The feathers of the lower back and rump are rich steel-blue, those of the lower parts bronzy black, all tipped with intensely rich metallic golden and coppery bronze, and the tail and its coverts light gray mottled with black, followed by a broad spot of deep blue margined on both sides with black, then a line of yellow, and finally they are tipped with deep reddish, all the bright colors being metallic.

The habits of the Ocellated Turkey are similar to those of the other Turkeys except that it is if possible even more wary. Mr. Frank M. Chapman, who has recently studied it in Yucatan, found it still tolerably abundant in many localities,but states that it is perhaps the shyest bird he has attempted to secure. Its flesh is highly esteemed by the native Indians, who have hunted it from time immemorial with the result that it has acquired a great degree of caution. It frequents the borders of clearings and corn-fields and, according to Gaumer,the male during the breeding season, which is in May and June, makes a peculiar drumming noise, which is very deep and sonorous; ” after this he utters his peculiar song, which resembles the rapid pecking of a distant Woodpecker or the song of the great bull toad.”

The nests and eggs are closely similar to those of the Common Wild Turkey.