The Osceola turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola) is one of five subspecies of the wild turkeys that exist in the U.S. The bird was given its name by W.E.D. Scott in 1890. He named it after the famous Seminole Indian Chief Osceola, who was alive in the earlier part of the century. The Osceola wild turkey is also known as the Florida wild turkey. This bird is confined to the Florida panhandle and there are approximately 80,000-100,000 of them running free in the wild of southern Florida. Due to their limited range, Osceola wild turkeys are a prize with hunters, who come from all over the country to take their turn at hunting this beautiful and elusive bird.
The Osceola is the smallest wild turkey in the U.S., with the juvenile, known as a jake, weighing in at 15-20 pounds. The mature male, known as a tom or a gobbler, will be as much as 3.5 feet tall and can weigh as much as 20 pounds. The mature female, known as a hen, can also reach a height of 3.5 feet, but is generally much lighter, weighing in at a mere 8-14 pounds.
The Osceola wild turkey looks very much like their larger cousins, the eastern wild turkey (which also lives on the Florida panhandle and throughout much of North America), but they have more black and less white in the barring of their flight feathers and secondary wing feathers. They also have more iridescent green and red in their feathers than the eastern wild turkey, which tends to have more bronze in their feathers. The Osceola turkey also has long and darker tail feathers.
The Osceola wild turkey shares other characteristics with its larger northern cousin. The male’s head is reddish in color and the female’s head is blue. In addition, the male has a number of red fleshy growths around the head, including the snood (above the bill), the caruncles (on the sides and front of the neck), and the dewlap (under the chin). In addition, all males and 10% of females have a beard that hangs from their chest and males have spurs on their lower legs.
Habitat and Range
The Osceola wild turkey has a very specific range that is marked by a boundary that is drawn between Taylor and Dixie Counties on the Gulf coast and carried across between Duval and Nassau Counties on the Atlantic coast. Those turkeys labeled as Osceola live south of this boundary. The Osceola turkey’s habitat consists of the swampland of Florida. They primarily inhabit the marshes, scrub patches of palmetto, and stands of flat pines and oaks.
The diet of the Osceola turkey is varied and includes nuts, such as beechnuts and acorns, as well as grass, blackberries, grapes, and insects, such as grasshoppers and beetles. They will eat small amphibians and lizards given the opportunity and they will also eat grains, such as corn and oats, if these are available. As the Osceola turkey ages, its diet becomes more and more plant-based. Once mature, 90% of the turkey’s diet consists of plant material.
The Osceola turkey has very keen eyesight and hearing, which makes them a particular challenge for hunters. They also have a wide range of calls, including whistles, gobbles, yelps, and clucks. It is important that hunters are familiar with the individual calls of the Osceola wild turkey as mimicking their calls is the best way to lure them out of hiding. Hunters generally use the call of the female Osceola when hunting in order to attract the male.
The Osceola wild turkey tends to roost overnight, from sunset to sunrise, in low-lying trees that are on the edge of swampy and marshy land. In fact, these birds have a tendency to roost over water, which means that they must fly as much as 100-200 yards at first light to reach dry ground, where they will move into open areas for feeding.
The reproductive cycle of the Osceola turkey begins with gobbling, which happens as early as January in southern Florida. Three to four weeks after this they mate and by mid-April the hen will have laid 8-12 eggs that will hatch in mid-May, an incubation period of approximately 27 days. The young turkeys are called poults. When it comes to the hierarchy of the flock, the pecking order is clear with the most dominant bird at the top. Body language is also important for the toms, who enjoy strutting around. This action accomplishes two things: it intimidates the other males and attracts the hens, which is ideal during mating season.