A little turkey trivia for this Thanksgiving season: Did you know this state is home to a type of wild turkey that can only be found in the peninsula of Florida?
The Osceola turkey—also known as the Florida turkey—is one of five subspecies of turkey and it’s the only one that lives exclusively in the Sunshine State.
Its presence here was not always so certain; Around the turn of the last century, a combination of overhunting and habitat loss almost wiped out the Osceola turkey.
“Some of those remote swamps and areas that had been refuges for turkeys started being accessible to people,” says Roger Shields, the wild turkey program coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
After many years of interventions, the turkeys are thriving once more in Florida. Shields estimates there could be as many as 80,000 Osceolas strutting around the state now.
In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, WLRN put together some turkey trivia to try out on your family between now and when the last leftover sandwich is eaten:
Whatever kind of pudgy, top-heavy grocery-store turkey you might be picturing, the Osceola is not that.
The Osceola turkey is leaner. And it’s prized for its dramatic coloring. From a state guide:
“The white bars on the Osceola are more narrow, with an irregular, broken pattern, and they don't extend to the feather shaft. It's the black bars of the Osceola that actually dominate the feather. In conjunction, secondary wing feathers also are darker. When the wings are folded across the back, the whitish triangular patch formed is less visible on the Osceola. Osceola feathers also show more iridescent green and red colors, with less bronze than the eastern.”
“The new subspecies is named after Osceola, a celebrated and remarkable chief of the Seminole tribe of Indians,” wrote ornithologist W.E.D. Scott in 1890.
In the late 1880s, Scott made a birding expedition to Florida and noticed a type of turkey that looked different from others he had seen. Scott described the bird in the quarterly ornithology journal, The Auk, which is still in publication today.
Probably not, but there are some other entertaining theories.
WLRN reached out to Turkey Point’s communication team and after some scratching around, they had this explanation:
“As far as we can tell, our plant isn’t named after Osceola turkeys. A few theories abound, and I can’t confirm any (unfortunately).
- The site may be known for the anhinga, or “water turkey” roosting.
- Another claim is that it came about because of the shape of the land point that “sticks out like a turkey’s neck” into Biscayne Bay.
- Others say that Native Americans or pirates who operated in the area in the early 19th century may have bestowed the name, maybe because of turkey vultures or wild turkeys in the area.
We asked one of our longest-serving employees if he’d ever seen a wild turkey at the site and he said, "no.”
In the years since Florida’s turkey populations bottomed out, in the early 1900s, the state has embarked on a series of land management and turkey repopulation programs.
By maintaining wild turkey habitat and taking birds from areas thick with turkeys and moving them to turkey deserts, turkeys were re-established throughout the state.
Transit is stressful for turkeys so managers came up with a creative way of reducing travel time to remote areas.
“They actually tried releasing a few birds by air out of airplanes, which was kind of cool,” says Shields.
First of all, wild turkeys—not the farmed birds destined for grocery cases—actually can fly. In fact, they can fly up to 55 mph in short bursts.
And yes, Shields says a couple hundred were probably relocated that way in the 1960s and early 70s. If you’re shoveling them out of the back of what’s basically a slow-moving, low-flying crop duster, they’ll tumble and then glide gently enough to the ground.
Turkey-catching technology has changed over the years. In the early era of conservation, turkeys would be enticed into drop-door traps. There were also attempts to drug the turkeys into a stupor to make capture easier.
These days, Shields and his colleagues use fast-deploying nets with charges in them.
“We're hiding in a blind and we have the area baited up trying to attract turkeys into it,” he explains. “When birds do come in, we fire those rockets. The rockets are propelled forward, kind of upward and over the birds. So it's a real fast. It takes less than a couple seconds for that net to be deployed.”
You can watch a demonstration from Louisiana State University’s agriculture school here:
The birds like a mix of prairie and forest—around the edges of cypress domes, pineland, hardwood hammocks—and can be found throughout the Florida peninsula.
Roger Shields’ department produces a wild turkey forecast map. You can see what populations look like in your part of the state:
Shields’ department will have a booth where you can learn more in person (and see the rocket nets!) at the upcoming celebration for the 75th anniversary of Florida’s Wildlife Management Areas.
What: Closing event for the 75th Anniversary of Florida's WMA System
When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017
Where: Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area (Located in Orange County, approximately three miles south of the town of Christmas, and between the cities of Orlando and Titusville)
Contact: Jerrie Lindsey Jerrie.Lindsey@myfwc.com