Appreciating the avian diversity that’s there to astound us—if only we look.
By Jessica Leber
There are only two species of turkey in the world, and we’re all familiar with one: the Wild Turkey. A magnificent bird first domesticated by the Aztecs and later again by Native Americans, its farm-bred form will fill our Thanksgiving plates this November, while wild flocks continue their decades-long recovery from overhunting and habitat loss across the eastern United States.
Let’s first take a minute to appreciate the Wild Turkey’s comeback, or perhaps even savor its sweet revenge as the birds apparently terrorize growing swaths of suburbia.
Now, let’s move on, because I really want to talk about the other turkey species: the Ocellated Turkey. It’s understandable if you’re not familiar with this trippy, technicolor Wild Turkey relative. It only lives in a small part of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. I also hadn’t heard of it when I started my new job at Audubon magazine around Thanksgiving a year ago.
That’s when I stumbled upon the Ocellated Turkey’s existence while on social media. I was in awe. With its eyed feathers, it looked more like a peacock than any turkey I’d ever seen. Its plumage evoked the beauty of an oily puddle’s iridescent sheen, and its pretty aqua blue head, dotted with bright orangey warts, gives the species a fun “I woke up like this” vibe. I had thought turkeys were just turkeys, but this turkey was something else.
This was a feeling about birds I’ve since had many times in the past year working at Audubon. Previously, I’d been casually familiar with a number of common species where I live, but had no grasp of the amazing diversity of the avian world. Now that I’ve started to learn more about birds near and far—say, the unusual breeding habits of the Phainopepla (a.k.a. “the Goth Cardinal”), the record-breaking fire alarm call of the White Bellbird, and the Northern Mockingbirds’ ability to mimic other birds, human machinery, and even toads—I can start to wrap my mind around the Ocellated Turkey in the context of 10,000 or more bird species globally, and nearly 1,000 in North America alone.
My greater awareness of the breadth and beauty of birds also translates to a better appreciation of the scale of their losses. One recent, startling report we covered estimates that we’ve lost about 3 billion North American birds in the last 50 years—that’s more than 1 in 4 bird, gone. Then, in October, we devoted our fall issue of Audubon to look at the future: without action, climate change makes 389 bird species, of 604 species studied, vulnerable to extinction, according to Audubon science. Mostly because I am now paying attention, in the last year, I’ve seen my first Sandhill Crane, Piping Plover, Baltimore Oriole, and Scarlet Tanager. Now they’re no longer faceless climate-threatened birds. They’re real.
For the Ocellated Turkey, as was once true for the Wild Turkey, overhunting is a major threat to its declining populations. But in the Central American region where it lives, much hunting is for food and survival, not sport, and so the solutions are far from simple. Eco-tourists and birders—some coming to spot the Ocellated Turkey and other varied species—who value conservation and bring dollars with them are at least a part of the answer.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever make it to the Yucatán to see this turkey in person. But just knowing that it exists out there in the world is at least something to ponder this Thanksgiving. Like its better known Wild Turkey relative, the bird could use a success story, and now I know it’s only one of many.