Laying Eyes on the Ocellated Turkey

Ocellated Turkey Details Photo Credits: TL: Leander Khil, TR: Seth Inman, BL & BR: Richard Kostecke

When we first met recent guest (and now contributor) Richard Kostecke at Chan Chich Lodge he shared that the Ocellated Turkey was a life list bird for him. Like many birders we’ve met here, he was thrilled by the fact that this near-threatened species is so prevalent around the lodge and throughout our 30,000 acres.

This is especially true during the past several months, when we see the parades of chicks running behind the attendant adults throughout the property.

As a parting gift Richard had sent us a link about the species from Cool Green Science, a site we frequent ourselves.

Found only on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) certainly bears a resemblance to the American wild turkey.

But it’s a different species. It is smaller and lacks the “beard” typical of the more familiar wild turkey. Its mating call is higher pitched than the usual “gobble.” The most striking difference, though, is the color.

The vibrant, almost unreal color: iridescent feathers, large spots on the tail, a bright red ring around the eye and a blue head covered with red and yellow nodules (nodules that swell and become brighter in males during the breeding season).

It’s a turkey as conceived by Dr. Seuss. Or perhaps Alexis Rockman.

Science writer Darren Naish, a fellow gamebird enthusiast, has the definitive blog on the ocellated turkey’s natural history and evolution.

Despite Naish’s excellent information, it is striking how little we know about this beautiful bird, especially information critical for its conservation.

As ornithologists with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Neotropical Birds program note:

The current conservation status of this species should be interpreted recognizing the paucity of research on population levels, especially in habitat strata inaccessible to humans. Additionally, published research is often based on observational data from birds inhabiting protected areas that are habituated to humans and may not be representative of wild counterparts.

Most conservationists consider it near-threatened, with deforestation making the birds easier to kill by local subsistence hunters, a major factor in the species’ decline.

Many conservation organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, are working on protected areas in the Yucatan Peninsula.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that reserves could work well for ocellated turkey preservation. The heavily-visited Mayan ruins, like Tikal in Guatemala, are known by many birders and biologists to be the best places to observe these birds. These archaeological reserves are well guarded against looters and also have the regular presence of visitors that keep poachers away.

That certainly has proven to be true in our conservation area!





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