Living Sanibel: Osceola Wild Turkey named after Seminole chief
The male wild turkey is the heaviest bird living in Florida. Almost entirely terrestrial, this huge gobbler is nonetheless capable of short, powerful flights, seldom exceeding a quarter of a mile. Most of its days are spent foraging on the ground and its evenings roosting in trees, where it is safe from predators, such as raccoons and bobcats. This is an important game bird throughout Florida where it is found in all 67 counties. Although the wild turkey was once common on many of the Gulf Coast’s barrier islands, extensive development has eradicated these flocks, and the wild turkey is now found exclusively inland.
Benjamin Franklin proposed the wild turkey as the national bird and was disappointed when Congress chose the bald eagle instead. Once abundant throughout North America, the turkey was hunted to extirpation in almost the entirety of its former range. The Florida population, however, remained healthy throughout the 1800s and 1900s, and was instrumental in repopulating the species starting in the 1950s. Today, because of the success of this reintroduction program, the wild turkey not only thrives in its former range, but can also be found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. It has even moved into parts of southern Canada, where it was historically never a native species. The turkey also occurs in Mexico, where the domesticated stock originated. Prior to its near eradication, the turkey was an important food source for Native Americans and pilgrims.
The Osceola, or Florida, wild turkey, named for the famous Seminole chief, is a subspecies. It is slightly smaller than other wild turkeys, and its body feathers are an iridescent green-purple. The wild turkey is an omnivore, foraging on acorns, insects, worms, grubs, seeds, and even snakes and small reptiles. One of the best spots in Southwest Florida to see this large bird is Myakka State Park and Babcock Ranch, where the uplands and oak forests provide ample habitat. The wild turkey is legally hunted by man, but also falls victim to a variety of natural predators including raccoons, opossums, skunks, foxes, eagles, great horned owls, bobcats, coyotes, panthers, and any number of larger snakes.
Reduced to a U.S. population of a mere 30,000 birds in 1901, the wild turkey today numbers more than 7 million birds worldwide and counting. This is a clear-cut example of how a well-monitored conservation effort coupled with a reintroduction program can make a huge difference for the future of wildlife.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.