Turkeys have long been one of the most popular birds in the U.S. The succulent meat has evolved into a staple of Americans’ annual Thanksgiving dinner, but long before that, Native Americans used turkey feathers in many ceremonies and rituals. Whether the turkey is found in the wild or is of the domestic variety commonly sold as a food source, turkey feathers are much the same, except for color.
The wild turkey is one of two species of the game bird, the other being the ocellated turkey. Found all over North America, male wild turkeys typically boast iridescent feather of green, gold, copper or red. The wing feathers are a shiny bronze marked with white bars. The plumage of the female is more drab, mostly shades of brown and gray. The tail feathers of both genders are long and dark, spreading out in the bird’s unmistakable fan shape.
There are five subspecies of wild turkeys in the U.S., and each features subtly different colorations on the feathers. The most common is the Eastern wild turkey, which has tail feathers tipped in chestnut brown, while the tail and lower back feathers of Merriam’s wild turkeys are tipped in white. Osceola turkeys, also called Florida turkeys, are darker overall than Eastern turkeys, and the wing feathers are especially dark, with smaller amounts of white. The feathers of Rio Grande turkeys have a coppery green gloss, and the tips of their tails are buff-colored. Gould’s turkeys have a slightly more greenish-gold shade on their body feathers, and their tail feathers are longer than those of the other subspecies.
Domesticated turkeys are of the same species as the wild turkey, but they are not a subspecies. They simply are wild turkeys that have been tamed. This domestication process was first undertaken centuries ago by the Aztec Indians of Mexico. Today, domesticated turkeys are found all over the world. Those raised on farms as food usually have white feathers all over their bodies. The domesticated turkeys have been bred for this specific plumage color because, when plucked, the white pin feathers do not leave any dark markings under the skin. Brown or bronze feathers still are seen occasionally. In fact, Standard Bronze turkeys are the oldest domesticated breed in the U.S.
Other Domestic Breeds
In the U.S., domesticated turkeys usually are a breed known as the Broad Breasted White. However, because the birds were taken to Europe not long after they were discovered, there are many other distinct breeds of domesticated turkey to be found there. Cross-breeding has led to new European breeds such as the Royal Palm and the Spanish Black, and new patterns of plumage. There are other breeds of domesticated turkeys in the U.S. as well, including the Beltsville Small White, thanks to advances made in the breeding of these birds.
The second species of turkey, the ocellated turkey, is not found in North America. Rather, this species resides only in a small area of the Yucatan Peninsula. The plumage of ocellated turkeys is very different from that of their North American cousins. Neither gender features the beards typically seen on male turkeys of North America, and the body feathers of both genders of ocellated turkeys are green and bronze. Tail feathers are gray-blue and carry a bronze-blue spot in the shape of an eye. Ocellated turkeys were named for this spot. Due to its similarity to the eye-shaped spot found on peacock tail feathers, some scientists believe ocellated turkeys are more closely related to those colorful birds than to other turkey species.