What do you know about the swamp turkey from Florida?
The Osceola wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo osceola), also known as the Florida turkey, is a subspecies of wild turkey that only occurs in the Florida peninsula. Since it is limited to such a small geographic range, it is a popular game bird for many to check off their hunting list.
Description and Life History of the Osceola Wild Turkey
The Osceola wild turkey subspecies is smaller and darker than the Eastern subspecies. Males usually weigh between 15 to 20 pounds and females 8 to 12 pounds on average (NWTF 2018). Males have iridescent green and red hues on their feathers (not as bronze as the Eastern subspecies), while females have a dull feather finish. They can also be distinguished from the Eastern wild turkey by their dark brown tail feather tips and by their wing bars and primary feathers consisting of more black than white. The Osceola turkey typically has a shorter beard than the Eastern, but it has very long spurs (NWTF 2018). The caruncles (wattles) on gobbler heads are red colored throughout the year, but may also contain intense shades of blue and white during the breeding season (FFWCC 2018). Females usually have bluish-gray heads and normally do not have a beard.
The breeding season generally runs from January to May in southern Florida (FFWCC 2018). Males start gobbling and strutting for females at the beginning of this date range; the Osceola is known to be a loud gobbler (NWTF 2018). Osceolas may interbreed with Eastern turkeys where their ranges overlap. Hens scratch a depression into the ground for a nest in March or April and lay 9 to 11 eggs (FFWCC 2018). After 25 to 26 days of incubation, poults hatch and begin following the hen immediately. After a two-week process of feeding themselves and building their flight muscles, they can roost safely off the ground (FFWCC 2018).
Poults transition to their adult diet of seeds, fruits (e.g., grapes and berries), leaves, acorns, insects, and small reptiles as the summer turns into fall (FFWCC 2018). Though turkeys spend their day foraging on the ground for these foods, they usually fly up into open-limbed mature trees to roost for the night. This keeps them safe from ground predators, which include bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and snakes.
Range and Habitat of the Osceola Wild Turkey
As mentioned, the Osceola turkey has one of the most limited ranges of all the turkey subspecies, occurring only in the Florida peninsula. The Eastern turkey overlaps some of this range primarily on the Florida panhandle and the Florida-Georgia line.
Generally, turkeys require a few different kinds of habitat types over the course of their lives and throughout the changing seasons (FFWCC 2018) to thrive. Nesting cover consists of vegetation about three feet in height (e.g., saw palmetto, old fields and pastures and under fallen trees), which provides cover for the hen as she incubates the eggs. After the poults have hatched, hens seek out shorter vegetation (e.g., grassy openings and short hayfields) where there are ample insects for forage and where the hen can spot approaching predators. Preferred roost trees for adults include cypress or pine trees with open limbs near water sources. Fall and winter habitat includes “hardwood hammocks, bottomland hardwoods, wooded swamps, cypress woods, and mixed pine-hardwood habitats” (FFWCC 2018).
Conservation Issues with the Osceola Wild Turkey
Estimates place the Osceola turkey population at approximately 100,000 individuals in Florida. However, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate due to the secretive nature of the species and dense vegetation where they reside. During the initial decline of the turkey in our country, Florida’s inaccessible swamplands provided refuge for the species while many other states struggled to keep turkey populations viable (FFWCC 2008). However, the Osceola was nevertheless eliminated from portions of the Everglades in the 1900s due to extensive timber harvests and hunting pressure (NPS 2018). Efforts to reintroduce the Osceola into the Everglades have had mixed results.
In 1985, the Florida Legislature passed the Florida Wild Turkey Stamp Act, which required all turkey hunters to buy a permit or license. Revenues helped support wild turkey research and conservation efforts (FFWCC 2008). In Florida, brood considerations and the availability of roosting trees can often be the most limiting factors in determining habitat, though increased urbanization is also responsible for habitat destruction (FFWCC 2018). Given their limited range, unique coloration, and small population size, unregulated hunting pressure could quickly affect the persistence of the subspecies.
Hunting Opportunities for the Osceola Wild Turkey
Fortunately, the State of Florida manages hunting pressure on these turkeys well. There are both spring (March to April) and fall (zone-dependent season dates) turkey seasons in Florida. There is a two turkey daily bag and season limit on gobblers and bearded turkeys for both spring and fall seasons. The exception is in Holmes County, where the daily bag and season limit is one gobbler or bearded turkey in spring. Always check the most recent Florida hunting regulations for updated rules.
While you can apply for special hunts and limited entry/quota hunts, there are also lots of public hunting areas where you can pursue turkeys with only an over-the-counter license. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission maintains a list of wildlife management areas where you can find the Osceola subspecies, as well as information to help you get started.
FFWCC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). 2008. Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management. February 19. Accessed at: http://myfwc.com/media/460317/Turkey_StrategicPlan.pdf
FFWCC. 2018. Wild Turkey Management Program. Accessed at: http://myfwc.com/hunting/by-species/turkey/
NPS (National Park Service). 2018. Everglades. Wild Turkey: Species Profile. Accessed at: https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/wildturkey.htm
NWTF (National Wild Turkey Federation). 2018. Learn About the Wild Turkey Subspecies. Accessed at: http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/article/wild-turkey-subspecies