Wild Turkey Species Native to North America [photos]
North American wild turkeys - see how many species are native to North America - and its sub-species. Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, Merriam, and Gould wild turkeys.
The North American wild turkey species is called the Meleagris gallopavo, but that grouping is broken down into five sub-species; Eastern, Osceola, Merriam, Gould, and Rio Grande. Their territories range from most of North America, (Eastern wild turkey), to extremely regional, (Osceola and Gould wild turkey).
Wild Turkeys in North America
How many types of wild turkeys are in North America? Just these five!
With the abundance of wild turkeys in North America, and the popularity of turkey hunting, the answer to the question - "How many species of wild turkeys are native to North America?" might surprise you. Because the answer is one! The Meleagris gallopavo. And even more surprising - there are only two species of wild turkeys in the world.
The way a question is asked can often make a lot of difference in the answer, because if instead of asking about species, it had asked about types, ie. "How many types of wild turkeys are native to North America?," then the answer would have been a more believable five. These five sub-species make up the entire population of wild turkeys in North America.
Wild Turkey Sounds
Eastern Wild Turkey
The Eastern wild turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris), is the most predominate North American sub-species, with both the largest population, and the largest distributed habitation area.
Eastern wild turkey range:
The natural range covers the entire eastern half of the United States; from Maine in the North to northern Florida in the South, and extending as far west as Michigan. Their population is estimated to exceed 5 million. Their habitat also extends to the eastern region of Canada.
It prefers mixed and hardwood forests, and is also the most hunted of the five sub-species. The males, (toms), can grow as tall as four feet, (top of fanned tail), and weigh as much as 30 pounds. The female, (hen), typically weighs much less, 8 to 14 pounds. The Eastern wild turkey is most readily identified by its chestnut or chocolate brown-tipped tail feathers. (it is the tail feathers that extend into the iconic "fan" display)
A second primary identification for this sub-species is the wing feathers, which display a bold white and black bar pattern. Both sexes have traditional white, red, and blue head coloration, including iridescent hues.
Eastern wild turkey diet:
The “Eastern” has a variety of foods in their diet, ranging from grapes and blackberries, beechnut and acorns, to grain like corn and oats. They also enjoy eating insects such as grasshoppers and beetles.
The eastern wild turkey is traditionally the recognized Thanksgiving turkey enjoyed by the early Puritans, and generations of Americans since.
This sub-species was first described and named by naturalist L.J.P. Vieillot in 1817, using the Latin term silvestris, meaning "forest" turkey.
The Osceola wild turkey
The Osceola wild turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), also known as the Florida wild turkey, has one of the smallest habitation regions, and sub-species populations. It is found only on the Florida peninsula, and their population is estimated at less than 110,000.
It is very similar in appearance to the Eastern wild turkey, except that it is physically smaller and its colors are much darker. It also has white and black bars on its primary wing feathers, but unlike the Eastern, the Osceola's wing bars are small and much more erratic and less uniform in size.
The Osceola "tom" generally stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, and weighs around 20 pounds. The female weighs almost the same as an Eastern wild turkey, but is about a foot shorter.
The Osceola wild turkey diet:
The Osceola has essentially the same diet as the Eastern wild turkey; grapes, blackberries, beechnut , acorns, and grain, such as corn and oats, and insects such as grasshoppers and beetles. But they will also eat small amphibians, such as small lizards and frogs from around the edge of swamp areas.
This subspecies was described and named by Naturalist and Birder, W.E.D. Scott, in 1890, who named it for the famous Seminole Chief Osceola.
More Wild Turkey Sounds
The Rio Grande wild turkey
The Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) is native to the central plains states and got its common name from the area in which it is found, the southern Great Plains states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Northeastern Mexico.
The Rio Grande sub-species is more nomadic than its eastern cousins, and will migrate to nesting areas as much as ten miles away from their normal habitations. They prefer open scrub over wooded areas, which is also unlike their wooded cousins.
The Rio Grande wild turkey range:
As mentioned, their primary natural range is the southern Great Plains states, but California has completed several major sub-species transplantation efforts and now also has a large Rio Grande population.
The Rio Grande's population is estimated to be between 1 and 1.3 million birds.
These turkeys are more pale and copper colored, than the Eastern or Florida sub-species and their tail feathers and rump coverts are tipped with yellowish-buff or tan color instead of the chocolate or medium browns of its cousins. They also have longer legs, even though their general body size and height are similar to the others.
The Rio Grande wild turkey diet:
Rio Grande's diet is very similar to the others... ie. chokecherries, bear berries, grains like corn, oats and wheat, and other bush fruit and seeds native to their habitat. They also enjoy eating insects such as grasshoppers, spiders and beetles.
The Rio Grande wild turkey was first described, and named, by George B. Sennett in 1879. Sennett described it as intermediate in appearance between the eastern and western subspecies, hence its scientific name - Meleagris gallopavo intermedia
But don't invade their turf...
The Merriam Wild Turkey
The Merriam Wild Turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo merriami), is found primarily in the ponderosa pine, western mountain regions of Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. And also the high mesa country of New Mexico. Their population is estimated at 325,00 to 350,000.
The Merriam is thought to be the newest, (relatively speaking), of the five North American wild turkey types, and its original habitat is a narrow corridor stretching through the Rocky Mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. But it has been widely stocked in other areas, and now it can also be found in Nebraska, Washington, California, Oregon, and other areas.
The Merriam wild turkey appearance:
The Merriam is easily distinguished from the Eastern, Florida and Rio Grande subspecies by the nearly white feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins. It does have black and white color configurations on its primary wing feathers, but not in the distinctive bar pattern of the Eastern sub-species. It has similar head coloration as the others, but with stronger blue, purple and bronze reflections. The purple and bronze reflections are also visible in its body feathers sheen.
It's physical size is also like the Eastern's, about four feet tall, and weighing around 20 25 pounds.
The Merriam wild turkey diet:
Merriams eat a wide variety of foods, including: chokecherries, bear berries, ponderosa pine seeds, and grain like corn, oats and wheat. They also eat insects such as grasshoppers, spiders and beetles. A Merriam’s diet can also include other plants that are indigenous to certain areas of the country.
The Merriam wild turkey was first described by Dr. E.W. Nelson in 1900, and named in honor of the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, C. Hart Merriam.
Toms vs. decoy hens
The Gould's wild turkey
The Gould's wild turkey, (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana), like the Osceola, has a very limited range. It is only found in an elongated region that stretches through parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and into northern Mexico. Its population is much more abundant in northern Mexico than in its U.S. region.
The Gould's wild turkey is also considered a mountain bird, preferring higher elevations to the plains and scrubs of the Rio Grande wild turkey. Another range limiting factor for the Gould's is that the hens seek out nesting areas near bodies of water, like; rivers, streams, and natural and livestock ponds.
Commonly seen as the largest of the five North American sub-species, it has longer legs, larger feet and larger center tail feathers than any of the other wild turkeys already described. The predominate colorations of the Gould's are; distinctive white tips on the tail feathers and tail rump coverts, and copper and greenish-golden reflections on their lower back and rump feathers.
The Gould's was first described as a sub-species, and named, by explorer and naturalist J. Gould during his travels in Mexico in 1856
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Gould's wild turkey is the least studied and recognized of the five wild turkey sub-species found in North America. And has the smallest estimated population numbers.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service, the Centro Ecologico de Sonora, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and other agencies are working cooperatively to reintroduce a strong Gould population first into Arizona, and then into other states where suitable range exists.
Overview - Northern America's Wild Turkey Habitat Regions
Did you know there were only two wild turkey species in the world?
Have you ever seen a wild turkey - in the wild?
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