Ocellated Turkey

November 20, 2011, 8:56 am
Content Cover Image

Photographer: Bruno Girin

The ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is a conspicuous, vibrant-coloured bird that can readily be distinguished from the only other turkey species, its larger and less colourful North American cousin, the North American wild turkey (Maleagris gallopavo). The body plumage of M. oscellata males and females is a striking mix of iridescent bronze and green colour, although females often appear duller than males, with a greener rather than bronze tinge. Both sexes have bluish-grey tails feathers with a distinctive, blue-bronze coloured ocellus (eye-shaped spot) near the end, from which the species derives its common name, followed by a bright gold tip. The brilliant blue head and neck of both sexes feature distinctive orange to red, warty, caruncle-like growths, called nodules, although these are more pronounced on males. Males also possess a fleshy blue crown adorned with yellow-orange nodules, which become more prominent during the breeding season. During this time an eye-ring of bright red skin also becomes especially visible on adult males. The deep red, short, thin legs and feet of males sport impressive spurs, which are much longer than those of the North American wild turkey.

During the breeding season in spring, ocellated turkeys are more commonly seen in clearings and roadways where male gobbling and strutting behaviour intensifies to attract the females. Most mating takes place from late March to mid-April and the majority of chicks are hatched by mid-June. The average clutch size is 12 eggs, but not all chicks will survive, with many predated by gray foxes, raccoons, cougars, jaguars, and numerous birds of prey and snakes, which may also prey upon adults. Ocellated turkeys have an extremely generalist diet, eating a wide variety of plant materials from leaves to seeds, nuts and berries, as well as insects such as ants, moths and beetles. However, chicks appear to feed exclusively on insects for the first month or so of life.

caption Photographer: Brian Gratwicke

Conservation Status

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum:--- Chordata
Class:------ Aves
Order:-------- Galliformes
Family:-------- Phasianidae
Genus:--------- Meleagris
Species:--------  Meleagris ocellata

Physical Description

Ocellated turkeys are similar in appearance to North American wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), but are lighter in weight and more brilliantly colored. Males weigh about 4.5 kg and are roughly 0.9 m in length. Females weigh about 2.7 kg.

The body feathers of ocellated turkeys are an iridescent bronze-green color, with those of the male being brighter than the female. The tail feathers are bluish-gray with blue-bronze eye spots on the ends, which give this bird its name, as oculus is Latin for eye. The tail feathers also have a bright gold tip.

The skin of the head and neck lacks feathers, is bright blue, and is scattered with orange-red nodules or "warts". Around the eye is a bright red ring of skin. Males have a blue fleshy crown on their heads with yellow-orange warts. During the breeding season, the crown enlarges and the eye-ring and warts become more visible in males. Legs are a dark red color in both sexes, but adult males have spurs measuring around 3.8 cm in length. (Rainforest Alliance, 2008; Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

Other Physical Features: Endothermic; Homoiothermic; Bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: Male larger; Male more colorful; Ornamentation


Ocellated turkeys are diurnal. They feed during the day and roost in trees at night. They are fast fliers and swift runners.  Ocellated turkeys are social and are sometimes seen in large flocks. Gaumer (1881) once counted 62 turkeys roosting on three adjacent trees. Each flock appears to be led by an individual that is in control of the flock's movement. (Gaumer, 1881)

Flock size and composition seem to change with the time of year. Sugihara and Heston (1981) observed 3 birds to be the average flock size in January, with flocks consisting either solely of adult males or of yearling males and females along with adult females. Leopold (1948) noted that flocks ranged from 3 to 10 birds in November and consisted of hens and gobblers. Steadman et. al. (1979) observed that flocks in February through March averaged 11 individuals and were composed of hens and gobblers. By April, the average flock size went down to 3 individuals. This decrease in flock size was due to males leaving the flock to become solitary and attract females, and females leaving to start laying eggs. (Sugihara and Heston, 1981)

Ocellated turkeys are not as vocal as North American turkeys, which may be due to the high number of predator species found in the forests of Central America. It may be in their best interest to be quiet birds that remain undetected. However, male turkeys do make low frequency drumming sounds, followed by a high-pitched gobbling noise. Gobbling and strutting are used by males in the breeding season to attract mates. Both males and females make a nasal cluck-putt location call, which can be made louder to sound alarm. (Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

Communication Channels: visual; acoustic

Perception Channels: visual; tactile; acoustic; chemical


Ocellated turkeys breed seasonally. Starting the first week of February, males begin to change in appearance, with crowns becoming enlarged and skin warts becoming more pronounced and colorful. From February through April males gobble and strut to attract mates. Just before strutting, a male wags his tail feathers from side to side. During the strut he spreads the tail fan, holds his head and neck back over the body, drags both wings on the ground, and vibrates one wing. He struts and circles a hen until she either leaves or squats down for copulation. Males may also gobble during a strut.

These breeding displays occur in open areas in the early morning before sunlight. After the sun rises, the birds return to the forest where the temperature is cooler. Males continue to gobble in the forest, while sitting on the ground. (Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

The breeding season of ocellated turkeys occurs once yearly, with most breeding occurring from late March to mid-April. Hens lay 8 to 16 eggs (average 12) any time between mid-March and mid-May. Most poults hatch by mid-June, but hatching can range from early May to July. A study in Tikal (1993) showed that each hen produced an average of six poults. (Gaumer, 1881; Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

The female begins her parental investment with building a nest in which to lay her eggs. The nest is built within the cover of dense vegetation, to hide it from predators. A small cavity is made in the ground and a few sticks and leaves are placed in and around the hole. When the chicks hatch, the hen will boldly fight, even risking her own life, to defend the lives of her offspring. (Gaumer, 1881)

It is not known whether males provide any parental care. Work done in 1979 by Sugihara and Heston suggests that ocellated turkeys have a similar social system to that of American wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), in which males do not generally provide parental care. Young turkeys are capable of walking and feeding soon after hatching. (Sugihara and Heston, 1981)

Mating System: Polygynous

Key Reproductive Features: Iteroparous; Seasonal breeding; Gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); Sexual; Oviparous

Distribution & Movements

The ocellated turkey's range extends over 50,000 miles in Central America. Meleagris ocellata occurs in south-east Mexico (Yucatán peninsula), north Guatemala (north Petén) and north-west and west-central Belize. It is probably most common in Belize where there are several quite large populations in protected areas and it is locally abundant. However, it has been extirpated from north Yucatán, west Campeche, east Tabasco and north-east Chiapas, Mexico, and numbers and habitat quality are presumably declining elsewhere. Although common in some reserves, it is generally rare and breeding season survival rates for females (60-75%) and poults (15%) are low in Tikal National Park, Guatemala. It occupies non-flooded mature forest, but associates with seasonally flooded habitat and open areas when breeding. There is heavy hunting for food (and occasionally sport), even within reserves. Large-scale clear-cutting and agricultural conversion is fragmenting habitat, increasing its susceptibility to hunting. There are local reports that chicken-born diseases have spread to populations in contact with domestic poultry but this has never been substantiated.


This bird most commonly occurs in tropical deciduous and lowland evergreen forests and clearings such as abandoned farm plots. Although found in non-flooded mature forest during much of the year, this turkey is also found in seasonally flooded habitat and open areas, which are especially important during the breeding season. Clearings are utilized during the breeding season. Birds may also be found in such varied habitats as marshland, savannah, abandoned farmland, and old growth mature rainforest. (Benstead and Capper, 2007; Rainforest Alliance, 2008; Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

Habitat Regions: Tropical; Terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: Savanna or grassland; Forest; Rainforest

Wetlands: Marsh

Feeding Habits

Ocellated turkeys are dietary generalists. Their omnivorous diet consists of various seeds, berries, and leaves, in addition to insects. They have been observed eating grass seed heads of Paspalum conjugatum, as well as the leaves of plants such as Ambrosia artimisiifolia, Vitis spp., Paspalum spp., and Zebrina spp. Insects consumed include moths, beetles, and leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes). These birds forage on the ground and tend to remain in small groups when feeding. (Rainforest Alliance, 2008; Sugihara and Heston, 1981)

Animal Foods: Insects

Plant Foods: Leaves; Roots and tubers; Seeds, grains, and nuts; Fruit


Ocellated turkey adults and young are preyed on by gray foxes, margay cats, ocelots, raccoons, coatis, cougars, jaguarundi, jaguars, snakes, and birds of prey. Humans also hunt adult turkeys for food.

Ocellated turkeys run fast and fly well, which help them to escape predators. Both male and female adults make a loud cluck-putt alarm call, which warns others in the flock. Birds roost in trees where they are safe from ground predators. (Gaumer, 1881; Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

Economic Importance for Humans

There are no known adverse effects of ocellated turkeys on humans.

Regulated sport hunting of ocellated turkeys and preservation of habitat can benefit the economy. Mexico has made hunting regulations in order to conserve this valuable resource, while also attracting hunters to come in from outside the area to help boost the economy of small villages. These turkeys provide a source of food for local people. (Taylor, Quigley, and Gonzalez, 2002)

Threats & Conservation Status

Relatively large populations of ocellated turkeys are found in protected areas of Belize, where this species is most common. However, in general, ocellated turkeys are rare and have been eliminated from some areas of Mexico, such as north Yucatan, west Campeche, northeast Chiapas, and east Tabasco. Survival rates for females and poults during the breeding season are a low 60-75% and 15%, respectively, in Tikal National Park in Guatemala.

This turkey is heavily hunted for food across its range, even within reserves, and also occasionally for sport. Much of this hunting occurs during the breeding season in March, April and May, when the bird favours more open, exposed clearings for its displays, making it more easily accessible to poachers. Unfortunately, when females are killed at this time, there is a knock on impact on the survival of their chicks. Large-scale timbering operations, clear-cutting, and conversion to agricultural land has destroyed and fragmented much of this bird's habitat, and thereby also increased its vulnerability to hunting. The alarming rate of forest destruction in Central America poses a significant threat to the long-term survival of this beautiful bird

The ocellated turkey is found in a number of 'protected areas' although these do not always provide safe refuge from poachers. It has been argued, however, that appropriately managed sport hunting, advertised at a high price to foreign countries, may be an effective conservation measure by bolstering the economy of many small villages, reducing the pressure for locals to hunt the turkey for subsistence and commercial purposes. The idea is to demonstrate that the ocellated turkey is much more valuable through carefully regulated sport hunting than through unrestricted, and unsustainable, subsistence hunting. Currently only limited sport-hunting opportunities are available to non-residents in Mexico and Guatemala.

Numbers are decreasing due to intense hunting for food and sport. Also, large-scale clear-cutting and slash and burn methods to make way for agriculture are destroying suitable habitat and making birds easier targets for hunting. (Benstead and Capper, 2007; Rainforest Alliance, 2008)

IUCN Red List: Not Evaluated

US Migratory Bird Act: No special status

US Federal List: No special status

CITES: Appendix III

Further Reading




Life, E. (2011). Ocellated Turkey. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/171597


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