There are six sub-species of wild turkey in Central and North America. Each of the turkey subspecies are endemic to a certain region and may have color and size variations, but all are wild turkeys. If you are planning a turkey management initiative on your property, make sure you know which turkey sub-species lives in your area. The sub-species of wild turkey found are:
Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris)
The eastern wild turkey was the turkey species first encountered in the wild by the Pilgrims. The range of this species covers the entire eastern half of the United States, extending into South Eastern Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces in Canada. Eastern turkey populations number from 5.1 to 5.3 million birds, the most numerous of any turkey subspecies. They were first named forest turkey in 1817, and can grow up to 4 feet tall. The upper tail coverts are tipped with chestnut brown and appear darker than many other turkey subspecies. The eastern wild turkey is heavily hunted in the eastern US and is the most hunted wild turkey subspecies!
Rio Grande (M. g. intermedia)
The Rio Grande turkey ranges through Texas to Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, and central and western California, as well as parts of a few northeastern states where they have been stocked. Rio Grande turkeys were also introduced to Hawaii in the late 1950s. Population estimates for this subspecies range from 1,022,700 to 1,025,700. This sub-species is native to the central plain states. They were first described in 1879 and have longer legs when compared to their body size. The Rio Grande turkey’s body feathers often have a green-coppery sheen to them. The tips of the tail and lower back feathers are a buff-very light tan color. This turkey’s habitats are brush areas of rolling terrain with mesquite, pine, and scrub oak forests interspersed with streams, creeks, and rivers. This is only turkey subspecies to be found at elevations up to 6,000 feet in elevation. Rio Grande turkeys are gregarious, flocking and roosting together throughout much of the year.
Merriam’s (M. g. merriami)
The Merriam’s turkey ranges from the Rocky Mountains and neighboring prairies of Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota as well as much of the high mesa country in New Mexico. Their population numbers from 334,460 to 344,460 birds and they live in ponderosa pine and mountain regions. The subspecies was named in 1900 in honor of Clinton Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. The tail and lower back feathersof the Merriam’s turkey have white tips and the bird’s overall color has purple and bronze reflections.
Osceola or Florida (M. g. osceola)
The Osceola turkey is found only on the Florida peninsula, but their population still fluctuates between 80,000 to 100,000 birds. This turkey is named for the famous Seminole Chief Osceola and was first described in 1980. It is smaller and even darker than the eastern turkey. The wing feathers are very dark with smaller amounts of the white barring seen on other sub-species. The Osceola turkey’s overall body feathers are an iridescent green-purple color.
Gould’s (M. g. mexicana)
The Gould’s turkey is native to central to northern Mexico and the southern-most parts of Arizona and New Mexico. This subspecies is heavily protected, regulated, and has an extensive long-term turkey management plan in place. It was first described in 1856 and populations exist in small numbers, but are abundant in Northwestern portions of Mexico. In addition, a small population has been established in southern Arizona. Gould’s turkey are the largest of the five sub-species. They have longer legs, larger feet, and longer tail feathers. The overall color of the body feathers are copper and greenish-gold.
South Mexican (M. g. gallopavo)
The south Mexican turkey is the nominate race and one of the few that is not found in the United States or Canada. The Aztecs domesticated the southern Mexican sub-species (M. g. mexicana) giving rise to the domesticated turkey which is a popular main dish for the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States and October in Canada. The pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts brought farmed turkeys with them from England, descendants of the original Mexican domesticated turkeys introduced into Europe by the Spanish, not knowing that wild turkey were native to the Americas.