a web page by Don Roberson

TURKEYS Meleagridinae
a subfamily of Pheasants & allies Phasianidae

  • 2 species in North America
  • DR personal total: 1 species (50%), 1 photo'd

There are only two species of Turkeys extant in the world today; the Wild Turkey (left) of North America, and the Ocellated Turkey Meleagris ocellata of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. From the fossil record they were once much more widespread and there were more species. Turkeys were "distributed continuously from middle latitudes of North America to northern South America during the Pleistocene" (Porter 1994). Today the Wild Turkey exists as a native only in eastern and southwestern North America and northernmost Mexico; populations on the West Coast and in the Great Basin are introduced. However, since turkeys were once native to some of these areas, it can be argued they are "re-introduced into a former range" rather than being a despised non-native gamebird. The evidence suggests that Wild Turkey was once native to northern California but it was never native to southern California, were a different and now-extinct species [Meleagris californica] once existed [see an essay on this topic].

Males have elaborate breeding displays (left). They attempt to impress by gobbling, inflating neck wattles, drooping the wings, raising and spreading the tail, and puffing out the chest so the sunlight catches the iridescence. Males can be as focused on disputing each other (below) as on a female.

Usually, turkeys are shy and secretive, even where introduced, and will high-step away once anyone gets to near. This harem (below) has spotted me and are on the run. Both the native and introduced populations are hunted. Indeed, turkeys were so important as a food source in early American history that Benjamin Franklin proposed they become the United States' national bird, an honor that was bestowed instead on the Bald Eagle.
Young birds (left) and females lack the elaborate wattles of males, but are easily recognized as turkeys by the huge size and gangly shape. Because they are so popular as a game bird, attempts to introduce turkeys (or re-introduce if speaking on an epochal scale) to California started as early as 1877. Various subspecies have been involved, but most have been of the south Texas and northern Mexican subspecies M. g. intermedia (Grinnell & Miller 1944). The birds shown on this page with whitish to buffy-white tips to the rectrices are likely from that stock; those with rusty tail tips may be ranch-raised stock from eastern populations (M. g. silvestris or osceola). Many of the efforts to introduce turkeys in California failed, such as on Santa Cruz Island or in the far northwest in Humboldt Co., sometimes because the habitat was inappropriate. Turkeys in California thrive best in extensive oak woodlands with a heavy acorn crop.

In my home of Monterey County, the turkeys originated from very aggressive stocking operations by Calif. Fish & Game which began in 1965 and continued for about a decade. At least 361 birds were released over the past 30 years, some 277 of which were California ranch-raised birds or wild trapped individuals from previously established populations in nearby Santa Clara and San Benito counties. Birds were usually released in groups of 8-14 to form stable flocks. From this start, good habitat (oak woodland) and good climate produced bumper "wild-bred" crops of youngsters and the population spread widely through the habitat. Our atlas estimate was 500 pairs in Monterey County alone, but this was likely low (Roberson & Tenney 1993). They are now widely distributed, including on Fort Ord, where Steve Rovell got this lovely shot (right).

Turkeys were traditionally placed in their own family, the Meleagrididae, including by the Handbook of the Birds of the World series (Porter 1994). However, molecular evidence shows that turkeys, along with grouse, are lineages embedded within the larger pheasant/partridge assemblage (e.g., Dimcheff et al. 2002).

The AOU (1998) and Dickinson (2003) now consider turkeys and grouse to be subfamilies of Phasianidae. In prior versions of my family list I had followed HBW in retaining each group as a 'traditional' family — each of which is easily recognized and each of which is a monophyletic group — but now the weight of the evidence is strong enough to compel the merger of turkeys and grouse into the Phasianidae. I retain this separate page, though, for convenience.

Photos: all photos of Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo were taken in California. The top top photos and the last shot were from Lake County on 17 May 1998; the remainder are from Monterey County. The running harem was in upper Carmel Valley on 17 Mar 2007; the young bird was a Jamesburg on 11 June 2005, and Steve Rovell photographed the Ft. Ord male on 25 May 2005. Photo © D. Roberson, except the photograph © Steve Rovell and used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se, although the literature on the Wild Turkey is vast. An good introduction to the subfamily is in Porter (1994).

Literature cited:

American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds. 7th ed. A.O.U., Washington, D. C.

Dickinson, E., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Dimcheff, D.E., S.V. Drovetski, and D.P. Midnell. 2002. Phylogeny of Tetraoninae and other galliform birds using mitochondrial 12s and ND2 genes. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution 24: 203-215.

Grinnell, J., and A.H. Miller. 1944. Distribution of the Birds of California. Pac. Coast Avifauna 27. Cooper Ornith. Society.

Porter, W.F. 1994. Family Meleagrididae (Turkeys) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 2. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Roberson, D., and C. Tenney, eds. 1993. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Monterey County. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.




  page created 25 Feb 1999, revised 17 Feb 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved