By Matt Miller, senior science writer
I know: turkeys are hard to avoid this week. Some 45 million will be served on Thanksgiving Day across the United States, to say nothing of turkey decorations, turkey trivia and turkey pardons.
Let’s put thoughts of that turkey aside for a moment, because there is another turkey species, this one arguably even more spectacular than the wild and domestic bird (yes, they’re the same species, Meleagris gallopavo) so common across North America.
Meet the ocellated turkey.
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.
But protected areas also must benefit local people so they are not forced to poach turkeys. While some conservationists find it distasteful to attach dollar values to wild animals, when birders and sport hunters provide income to local communities, it provides an incentive to manage the turkeys sustainably.
The American wild turkey’s restoration is one of the most successful conservation efforts ever. Could we duplicate that success with the ocellated turkey? Only if people know the bird and care about its fate. So this Thanksgiving, don’t forget the “other” turkey, that colorful, striking bird of the Yucatan forest.