First For Wildlife

Promoting conservation, outdoor education, and humanitarian programs worldwide.

Birds of a Feather: The Turkey Subspecies

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In the 1800s, unregulated hunting, deforestation and habitat destruction drove the wild turkey population to fewer than 30,000 birds in North America. Thanks to hunter-led conservation efforts, there are now around 7 million turkeys throughout the US, Canada and Mexico, and they are found in every US state except Alaska.

Turkeys are one of the most popular game species in North America. With spring seasons opening up across the country, make sure you know all six subspecies before your hunt!

Eastern turkey

The Eastern turkey is by far the most common, ranging across the eastern United States. The easiest way to distinguish subspecies is by examining the color of the turkey’s feathers. The Eastern subspecies has chestnut to brown tips on its tail feathers, and white and black bars on its wings. This bird has the strongest gobble of all 6 subspecies and the longest beard. Males can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Osceola (Florida) turkey

The Osceola turkey is distinct from the Eastern, being found only in Florida. This subspecies has darker brown tips on its tail feathers, and mostly black wings with small white bands. The Osceola’s wooded habitat may help explain this dark coloration. This turkey has relatively long legs and spurs, which are used by males for fighting. The Osceola turkey has a very long beard, second only to the Eastern turkey, but is considered the toughest subspecies to call in during a hunt.

Rio Grande turkey

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The Rio Grande turkey is mostly found in central and western Texas, but ranges north into Oklahoma and Kansas. This turkey has tan-colored feather tips, blending in with its plains ecosystem, with black and white barring on its wings. This subspecies is known to have moderate gobbles, and medium sized beards and spurs. Some hybridization among the subspecies occurs along the border of Eastern and Rio Grande turkey habitats.

Merriam’s turkey

The Merriam’s turkey lives in the Rocky Mountains, north to south from Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota down to New Mexico and Arizona. Due to the nature of this mountainous habitat this subspecies lives in fragmented populations. The Merriam’s turkey has light, buff to white tips on its tail and upper tail covert feathers, matching its snowy environment. The wings are also more white than black. This turkey is said to have the weakest gobble of all 6 subspecies, with shorter beards and spurs.

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Gould’s turkey

The Gould’s turkey exists mostly in Mexico, with some populations in New Mexico and Arizona. This subspecies is known for its long legs and snow-white feather tips on its tail and upper tail coverts, making it hard to distinguish from the Merriam’s turkey. The Gould’s turkey also has moderate gobbles and the shortest spurs of all the subspecies.

Ocellated turkey

The Ocellated turkey of Mexico’s Yucatan is an entirely separate species from the wild turkey and certainly the most unique, with rainbow iridescent feathering and grey tail feathers with blue and gold tips. They have similar white and black wings, but are much smaller in size than the wild turkey subspecies. Ocellated turkeys have a distinct high-pitched gobble preceded by a hollow drumming sound. Oddly enough, they have very long spurs, but no beard.

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According to the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), turkey populations are actually down in recent years, hovering just above 6 million. The key to understanding this slight drop is that habitat productivity drives turkey populations. Turkey hens need quality nesting habitat, and due to agriculture development they may be nesting on more marginal habitat. Turkeys also need successional habitat, lands that are in different stages of growth. As forests mature, nesting is limited.

Despite the slight drop in numbers, turkey hunters still enjoy ample hunting opportunity for this game species throughout its wide range. Hunter-led wildlife management efforts continue to improve turkey habitat.  Good luck calling in those toms and hunting these turkey subspecies this spring!

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Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more SCI Foundation news.

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