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Weird & Wonderful Creatures: Ocellated Turkey

Photo Credit: San Diego 2016 - Safari Park - Ocellated Turkey 2 by Aaron Fellmeth Photography. Licensed under cc by-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

You're likely familiar with the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) of North America, the bird that has been domesticated and symbolically associated with Thanksgiving. But did you know that there's another species of turkey? Meet the colorful ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) of Central America!

The ocellated turkey is recognized by its iridescent blue, green, bronze, and gold feathers. Its name refers to the blue, eye-shaped spot ("ocellus" is Latin for "eye") just below the gold tip of its tail feathers. These decorative feathers, in addition to some other similarities, once had people believing this turkey was closely related to peafowl (commonly called peacocks), but scientists now know they belong to different genera. 

The bird has a pale blue head sprinkled with wartlike, red-orange nodules. Males have both a blue snood, a fleshy protuberance next to its bill, and, behind that, a blue hornlike crown, sometimes with an orange tip and covered with yellow-orange nodules, that become more pronounced during mating season, as do their red eye ring. It has shorter, thinner legs than its northern relatives with sharp, 2-inch-long spurs. The birds are large and approximately the same size as wild turkeys, 2.5–4 feet in length and weigh 7–11 pounds, with males being larger than females.

Ocellated turkeys are native to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula as well as the Petén region of Guatemala and northern Belize. They live in tropical deciduous and evergreen forests, as well as savannahs, open marshland, and clearings and spend most of their time on the ground. However, they roost in the high branches of trees to avoid jaguars. 

The birds—which eat seeds, grasses, berries, and nuts, as well as insects, such as ants, beetles, and moths—live in flocks that fluctuate in size during the year. During the winter, males fight for dominance over the flock.

Ocellated turkeys breed in the spring and then the female lays 8—15 eggs in well-concealed ground nests, where she'll incubate them for four weeks. The chicks are able to leave the nest the day after hatching, but are particularly vulnerable to predators during their first two weeks, before their able to fly to roost. Predators include gray foxes, raccoons, cougars, jaguars, as well as birds of prey and snakes, which also attack grown turkeys. The birds prefer to run from danger, but can fly swiftly for short periods of time.

Ocellated turkeys are listed as near-threatened, with scientists estimating their population has been diminshed by half over the last century. They are heavily hunted, including within protective reserves, for their meat. The clear-cutting of forests for timber and conversion to farmland make the bird more exposed to hunting. Conservationists are considering a variety of tactics to help protect the turkey, including getting a better sense of the number of birds still living in the wild.

Interested in other birds found in Central America and the Carribean? The potoo is a master of camouflage. You can also read up on the parrots native to Puerto Rico.

You can learn about wild turkey siblings and other animal siblings from the lesson, Sisters & Brothers: Sibling Relationships in the Animal World and Spotlight on Science Writers: Steve Jenkins.

Turkeys are members of the order Galliformes along with other gamefowl, such as quail, grouse, and pheasant. The order also contains chickens. Melissa Caughey and Robin Page have both written books about chickens, one a hands-on guide and the other a picture book.

If you have a more general interest in birds, check out All About Birds, a comprehensive, online guide to birds from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Feather Analysis, a Science Update podcast focusing on a new technique for tracking birds; and the Journey North App, a free citizen science app to help you track migrations and seasons. Related lessons include Bird Beaks, a grade 3-5 lesson focusing on the relationship between a bird's beak and its ability to find food and survive in a given environment; Burrowing Owls, a middle school lesson that explores how humans can affect or change ecosystems for other species, specifically the Burrowing Owl; and Bird Populations, a high school lesson about patterns and changes in bird species.

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