Be Your Own Birder

Discover the Ocellated Turkey

When most birders think of a wild turkey, they really are thinking of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) – the iconic big game bird whose close cousin (or legally hunted brethren) will often grace dinner tables on particular feast day holidays in November and December. But did you know there’s a technicolor relative that is even more amazing and distinctive? Meet the amazing ocellated turkey!

Ocellated Turkey - Photo by Roberto González
Ocellated Turkey – Photo by Roberto González

Ocellated Turkey Fun Facts

  • The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is named for its eye-like markings (ocelli) on its broad tail feathers. The Latin root word, oculus or ocellus, means “eye” and these markings are similar to those found on the tail feathers of peacocks. Because of this similarity, ocellated turkeys were once believed to be a species of peacock, but further research and genetic comparison determined that the birds are, in fact, a type of turkey.
  • Ocellated turkeys are far more colorful than wild turkeys, but like the more familiar northern birds, their bare skin on the head, neck, and wart-like wattles can change color somewhat with mood and will become more brilliant and bold during the mating season.
  • These unique turkeys are only found in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and the adjacent small portions of northwestern Belize and northern Guatemala.
  • Because of its limited range, unsustainable agricultural practices, logging operations, and hunting, these birds are considered near threatened. This is an improvement from former endangered status, but much conservation work is still necessary to protect ocellated turkeys.
  • These birds are significantly smaller than their wild turkey cousins. While an adult wild turkey can reach as much as 25 pounds (domestic turkeys are bred specifically for heavier weights and can be even larger), a typical ocellated turkey weighs just 6-13 pounds.
  • Male ocellated turkeys use complicated courtship dances to impress potential mates. One male’s dance typically includes crouching, rapid foot stomping, wing dragging and vibrating, strutting, and tail waving and fanning.
  • Unlike their northern brethren, ocellated turkeys are not known to have been domesticated at any point in history. There is evidence, however, that the birds may have been used in trades in the ancient Mayan culture, and ocellated turkeys have been and still are an important food source for many indigenous cultures in the region.
Ocellated Turkey Portrait - Photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter
Ocellated Turkey Portrait – Photo by Panegyrics of Granovetter

Add the Ocellated Turkey to Your Life List

Within their limited range, these turkeys can still be difficult to find because of their low population numbers. Visiting a preserve or refuge with known flocks is the best option for ocellated turkey sightings, and local bird and wildlife guides can provide assistance with seeing these birds in safe, conscientious ways. Visiting areas of mixed habitat – jungle and forest edges and adjacent clearings – is ideal for seeing ocellated turkeys, but there must be large trees in the forest fringe with horizontal branches for these birds to safely roost. Northern Belize has the highest populations of ocellated turkeys, making it the best destination for wild, unassisted sightings.

Learn More About the Ocellated Turkey

These great resources can help you learn even more about these amazing turkeys…

Ocellated Turkey - Photo by Roberto González
Ocellated Turkey – Photo by Roberto González

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