Incubation of Ocellated Turkey Eggs


lt's five o'clock in the morning and the sun starts to appear in Tikal National Park; surrounded by the noisy voices of hundreds of parrots and the strange vocalization of oropendolas. We leave our warm sleeping bags after a rainy night. With a hurry we walk toward the lost world (El mundo perdido). This archaelogical site is where a big group of ocellated turkeys gathers every evening looking for a secure roosting site. One of the two traps is located in front of a Mayan temple. For a period of one month, Wildlife Conservation International (WCI) personnel have been giving corn to the Ocellated Turkeys trying to adapt them to the presence of the trap and to the bait. A few minutes after spreading the corn, a strange sound fills the environment. Like small helicopters, one by one, the turkeys start to descend from their roosting sites. With a perfect landing, their heavy bodies touch the ground. A group of five turkeys come running toward the trap, looking for the free banquet. The trap is activated, but in a matter of seconds, four of them escape. The only trapped bird is radio tagged and then released. After a week, five females were radio tagged. These birds are not "turkeys" at all!

It seems that some birds might disappear faster than others. Birds that live under the forest canopy, are insectivorous or have a territorial social system, may be the first to go. In this large group we could include the Ocellated Turkey, a regional endemic species whose distribution is restricted to the lowland tropical forest of Peten, Guatemala; adjacent Central and Northern Belize, and the southern portions of Mexico. The distribution of the Ocellated Turkey with this area is somewhat patchy due to habitat destruction and hunting pressure. A more ominous threat to the Ocellated's status seemed to be the fear of domestic poultry diseases to which they are extremely susceptible and regularly exposed through frequent contact with free roaming village flocks that can be found through their range. Although the Ocellated Turkey

is one of the most conspicuos mem- r---------------bers of the avifauna in the Peten

region and one of the important

gamebirds in the area, relatively little

is known about its natural history.

The Ocellated Turkey is part of the family meleagridae, together with the common turkey Meleagris gallopauo. Its plumage is a bright copper-bronze. The Mayans believed that these feathers were mirrors that allowed the turkeys to see their predators before they were caught. The naked blue head and neck are decorated with bright orange caruncles. Each feather is decorated with an eye-like pattern or ocelli from which the bird takes its name. Ocellated Turkeys prefer open and secondary forest, abandoned corn fields, wood edges and savannahs. They find almost all of their food on the ground where they consume a great variety of vegetable matter: chickweed, tender shoots and grass, fruits and seeds. A great part of their diet seems to be insects such as grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. The density and distrbution of Ocellated Turkeys in heavily forested areas such as Tikal National Park may be largely controlled by the distribution and size of grassy areas. The scarcity of Ocel- lated Turkeys noted by some observers in heavily cleared areas also argues for their need of forests. Smithe 0979) reported the turkeys at Tikal to be widespread but not numerous, and according to Steadman 0979) the density of Ocellated Turkeys in Tikal is about one individual per square kilometer.

During the months of February and March, the male turkeys start "singing", displaying a spectacular courtship behavior. Turkeys are polygamous, the dominant male being the only one that breeds with the females of its "harem". By spreading out his body plumage, the cock increases his size and displays his ornamentally colored feathers. He raises his tail and spreads it fully, showing the bluegreen ocelli of each feather which attract the hen. The wings are dropped until they touch the ground, rattling over the floor making a drum like sound.