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The 5 Wild Turkey Subspecies in North America (With Photos)

G. A. Anderson is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast.

North American wild turkeys are all the same species, but they can be divided into five unique subspecies by characteristics like size, range, and appearance.

North American wild turkeys are all the same species, but they can be divided into five unique subspecies by characteristics like size, range, and appearance.

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 turkey are native to North America?" might surprise you. The answer is one—Meleagris gallopavo. It may come as even more of a surprise that there are only two species of wild turkey in the world.

The single North American wild turkey species, Meleagris gallopavo, comprises five unique subspecies. These five subspecies make up the entire wild turkey population in North America. Their territories vary from vast (in the case of the eastern wild turkey) to extremely regional (in the cases of the Osceola and Gould wild turkeys). The sections below discuss each subspecies in detail and provide information about population size, diet, habitat, and more.

The 5 Subspecies of North American Wild Turkey

  1. Eastern
  2. Osceola
  3. Merriam
  4. Gould's
  5. Rio Grande
The five North American wild turkey subspecies are the eastern, Osceola, Merriam's, Gould's, and Rio Grande.

The five North American wild turkey subspecies are the eastern, Osceola, Merriam's, Gould's, and Rio Grande.

1. Eastern Wild Turkey

The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most predominant North American subspecies, boasting both the largest population and the most widely distributed habitation area. The subspecies' population is estimated to exceed five million.

The eastern wild turkey is traditionally recognized as the "Thanksgiving turkey" enjoyed by early European colonists and generations of Americans since. This subspecies was first described and named by naturalist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot in 1817 using the Latin term silvestris, meaning "forest."

Appearance and Identification

The males (toms) can grow as tall as four feet (at the top of their fanned tails) and weigh as much as 30 pounds. The females (hens) typically weigh much less at only about 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 way to identify this subspecies is the wing feathers, which display a bold white and black bar pattern. Both sexes have traditional white, red, and blue head coloration, sometimes including iridescent hues.

Diet

The eastern wild turkey has a varied diet, ranging from fruits like grapes and blackberries to nuts like beechnuts and acorns to grains like corn and oats. They also enjoy eating insects such as grasshoppers and beetles.

Most of the eastern wild turkey population inhabits the eastern half of the united states.

Most of the eastern wild turkey population inhabits the eastern half of the united states.

Habitat and Range

The eastern wild turkey's natural range covers almost the entire eastern half of the United States from Maine and southeastern Canada in the north to northern Florida in the south and as far west as Michigan. It prefers mixed and hardwood forests and is also the most hunted of the five subspecies.

This is a male (tom) Osceola wild turkey.

This is a male (tom) Osceola wild turkey.

2. 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 subspecies populations on this list. It is found only on the Florida peninsula, and its population is estimated at less than 110,000.

This subspecies was described and named by naturalist and birder, William Earl Dodge Scott, in 1890. He named it for the famous Seminole chief, Osceola.

Appearance and Identification

The Osceola is very similar in appearance to the eastern, except that it is physically smaller and much darker in color. It also has white and black bars on its primary wing feathers, but unlike the eastern, the Osceola's wing bars are small, 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.

Diet

The Osceola has essentially the same diet as the Eastern wild turkey—grapes, blackberries, beechnut, acorns, grains such as corn and oats, and insects like grasshoppers and beetles. They also eat small lizards, frogs, and other small amphibians and reptiles found around the edges of swampy areas.

The Osceola subspecies' range is restricted to the central area of the Florida Peninsula.

The Osceola subspecies' range is restricted to the central area of the Florida Peninsula.

Habitat and Range

The Osceola subspecies has the smallest range of the five American wild turkeys. It only exists in Florida, which is why it is also sometimes called the Florida wild turkey.

This is a male (tom) Rio Grande wild turkey.

This is a male (tom) Rio Grande wild turkey.

3. Rio Grande Wild Turkey

The Rio Grande wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) is native to the central plains states and is named for the area in which it is found, the southern Great Plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Northeastern Mexico. Its population is estimated to be between 1 and 1.3 million birds.

It was first named and described 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

Appearance and Identification

This turkey is paler and more copper-colored than the eastern or Florida subspecies, and its tail feathers and rump coverts are tipped with yellowish-buff or tan instead of the chocolate or medium brown of its cousins. It also has longer legs, even though its general body size and height are similar to the others.

Diet

The Rio Grande's diet is very similar to the others. It eats chokecherries; bearberries; grains like corn, oats, and wheat; and other bush fruits and seeds native to its habitat. It also enjoys eating small arthropods such as grasshoppers, spiders, and beetles.

Rio Grande wild turkey habitat region

Rio Grande wild turkey habitat region

Habitat and Range

As mentioned, the Rio Grande's primary natural range includes parts of the southern Great Plains states, but California has completed several major subspecies transplantation efforts and now also has a large Rio Grande population.

The Rio Grande subspecies is more nomadic than its eastern cousins and tends to migrate to nesting areas as many as ten miles away from its normal habitations. It prefers open scrub to wooded areas (unlike its tree-loving cousins).

Pictured here are two Merriam wild turkeys.

Pictured here are two Merriam wild turkeys.

4. Merriam's Wild Turkey

Merriam's Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) is found primarily in the western, ponderosa pine-laden mountain regions of Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota as well as the high mesa country of New Mexico. The population is estimated at somewhere between 325,00 and 350,000.

Merriam's wild turkey was first described by Edward William Nelson in 1900 and was named in honor of the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, Clinton Hart Merriam.

Appearance and Identification

The Merriam is easily distinguished from the eastern, Osceola, and Rio Grande subspecies by the nearly white feathers on its lower back and tailfeather margins. It does have black and white color configurations on its primary wing feathers, but not in the distinctive bar pattern of the eastern subspecies.

It has similar head coloration to the others but with stronger blue, purple, and bronze reflections. The purple and bronze reflections are also visible in the sheen of its body feathers. Its physical size is similar to the eastern's—it's about 4 feet tall and weighs around 20–25 pounds.

Diet

The Merriam eats a wide variety of foods, including chokecherries; bearberries; ponderosa pine seeds; and grains like corn, oats, and wheat. It also eats small arthropods such as grasshoppers, spiders, and beetles. A Merriam’s diet may also include other plants that are indigenous to the areas it inhabits.

The Merriam wild turkey Regional Habitat

The Merriam wild turkey Regional Habitat

Habitat and Range

The Merriam is thought to be the newest (relatively speaking) of the five North American wild turkey subspecies, and its original habitat is a narrow corridor stretching through the Rocky Mountains of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Since its discovery, it has become widely stocked in other areas and can now also be found in Nebraska, Washington, California, Oregon, and other areas.

5. Gould's Wild Turkey

Gould's wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo mexicana) was first named and described as a subspecies by explorer and naturalist John 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 subspecies in North America and has the smallest estimated population.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Forest Service, 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.

The Gould's Wild Turkey (a male - "tom")

The Gould's Wild Turkey (a male - "tom")

Appearance and Identification

Commonly described as the largest of the five North American subspecies, the Gould has longer legs, larger feet, and larger center tail feathers than any of the other wild turkeys described here. It can be identified by the distinctive white tips on its tail feathers and tail rump coverts and the copper and greenish-golden reflections on its lower back and rump feathers.

Gould's wild turkey habitation range

Gould's wild turkey habitation range

Habitat and Range

Gould's wild turkey, 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 it is in the U.S.

The Gould is considered a mountain bird, preferring higher elevations over the plains and scrubs favored by the Rio Grande wild turkey. Another range-limiting factor for the Gould is that the hens seek out nesting areas near bodies of water, like rivers, streams, and ponds.

An Overview of the Distribution of North America's Wild Turkey Subspecies

This map shows the distribution of North America's five wild turkey subspecies.

This map shows the distribution of North America's five wild turkey subspecies.

© 2012 ga anderson

Comments

frogyfish on April 05, 2020:

Interesting read you have given; just thought a turkey...was a turkey! I knew turkeys had lots of sounds, but hearing them was fun. I also discovered our State emblem of OK , the wild turkey, is most likely a Rio Grande type. I didn't first read the title of the Gould turkey - decoy...and was mad at those toms until I glanced up and read the title.!! Thanks for a fun share!

ga anderson (author) from Maryland on November 26, 2018:

Thanks for the read and comment Mike.

We have a good population in my area too. But I don't see them very often,

Readmikenow on November 26, 2018:

Good article. Where I live I see many wild turkeys every year. In the woods behind my house there are many of them. I put up my camping hammock and woke up one day, there was about 30 turkeys moving around my hammock trying to get to a field. It was something to see. I enjoyed reading this and learning many things I did not know.

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on December 27, 2016:

45 were in the field behind our family home in Maine recently, so the state has had great success in fostering their abundant return. The wild variety flies well, too, and roosts high at night.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 18, 2015:

Nice photos of a variety of turkeys here, GA. Very interesting. You're missing a period after 1856 in your hub. Voted up!

google seo on June 10, 2012:

Hello there, just discovered gaanderson.hubpages.com on Yahoo, and found that it's really awesome. I'm gonna watch out for brussels. I will appreciate if you keep writing about this subject in future. Lots of people will benefit from your writing. Cheers!

ga anderson (author) from Maryland on April 15, 2012:

@Aviannovice - thanks for the visit and comment.

I have heard other stories about the same kind of behavior - apparently they can be entertaining in multiple ways

GA

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on April 15, 2012:

Voted up and interesting. I lived in rural ME, and groups of them would come to visit. They liked birdseed and if you fed them, they would return. None of the ones in my area were aggressive, but they would rap on the door if you didn't notice their arrival.

ga anderson (author) from Maryland on March 12, 2012:

@JKenny, thanks for reading "Wild Turkey Species Native to North America," and you are right - they can get aggressive.

Thanks for the comment and vote too

GA

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on March 12, 2012:

Interesting hub. I remember reading somewhere that wild turkeys can get very aggressive. I think there's a clip on youtube somewhere of a turkey attacking a policemen. It's a wonder they were ever domesticated. Great work. Voted up.

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