Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ocellated Turkeys

I spent the past week at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference. This year it was held in Lubbock Texas. That sounds unlikely, but it was a great place to learn about drought and water use.

I also had the opportunity to meet Jon McRoberts, who is doing research on Ocellated Turkeys. He's the researcher who is studying those unusual birds, found only in the Yucatan. I wrote about them and his research in 2010. The article isn't posted online, so I posted it below. This photos is from Ian Waterman in England. More photos are available at http://www.texaspeafowl.com/DSC_5449.JPG.

Ocellated Turkeys

Whirring wings flash iridescent bronze and green as the birds flutter out of the tropical forest into a quiet clearing. An occasional cluck, whistle or gobble softly indicates their presence, otherwise hardly noticeable as they scratch for seeds among the grasses, their bright blue heads held down. They are Ocellated turkeys, southern cousins of the Yucatan to our North American Wild turkeys.

Males and females are similar in plumage, unlike North American turkeys. Their name refers to the blue and bronze ocelli on their tails, eye-shaped markings such as peacocks display on theirs. Males are an inch or so taller and half again heavier than females. Their dark red legs are six inches or longer, compared with the females’ less than five inches. Males weigh 11 to 12 pounds, compared to 6 to 7 pounds for females most of the year. The females get up to 8 pounds before egg-laying season in the spring.

Males grow spurs, half an inch in their first year, an inch and a half as two year olds, and two inches or longer as mature birds. Those who have heard the calls, foot-drumming and wing-beats find them difficult to describe, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library has several recordings available online, http://macaulaylibrary.org/browse/common/12008953. Linda Macaulay narrates the recordings she made in 1997.

Their blue heads are dotted with round orange to red fleshy nodules, more pronounced on males than females. Plumage is iridescent bronze-green with bluish gray tail feathers, sporting those bright blue eyes. No chance of mistaking this colorful forest bird for a Thanksgiving turkey.

As showy as they are, they were – and are still—eaten by locals. The Maya valued Ocellated turkeys for ceremonial banquets. Occupants of the palace at Mayapan, occupied for centuries before Europeans arrived, ate enough of them that 70 percent of the identifiable bones excavated from the site are from Ocellated turkeys. Although the Ocellated turkey was never domesticated as the wild turkey was, the bones at this site show the increased size that suggests they were kept captive and fattened. On the island of Cozumel, where the Spanish and the Maya first met, both Ocellated and domesticated turkeys were eaten.

Now their status is Near Threatened. The National Wild Turkey Federation hopes that with some attention, the species can recover, as North American Wild turkeys have.

“It’s a beautiful bird, a charismatic animal,” said Jon McRoberts, lead researcher for a group from Texas Tech University, National Wild Turkey Federation, the Mexican government’s SEMARNAT conservation agency, (http://www.semarnat.gob.mx/Pages/inicio.aspx), and the Union of Wildlife Management Areas studying Ocellated turkeys in their native habitat. “It’s difficult for folks to think of it in the sights of sport hunters, but the value hunting creates is saving the lives of these birds.”
McRoberts is doing the basic research to determine population levels, range, habitat needs and other information to earn his Ph.D. from Texas Tech University in Lubbock. 2010 was his first of four planned field seasons. He spent six months in Campeche, Mexico, returning to Lubbock to organize and analyze the data he collected in the field. His work will provide the basis for planning the Ocellated turkeys’ future.

Ocellated turkeys have a blue-colored head and neck with distinctive orange to red nodules, which are more pronounced on males. Neither sex has a beard. The head of the male also has a fleshy blue crown behind the snood. During breeding season, this crown becomes enlarged and the coloring of the nodules is more pronounced. The bright red eye-ring also becomes more pronounced during breeding season.

He's using radio collars to track the birds, on a large private ranch in Campeche and in the agricultural lands around Cano Cruz, a small town,. Both sites provide examples of different kinds of habitat, the open grasslands and tropical jungle. Different locales require different capture methods. On the open fields, he uses a cannon net. In the jungle, he uses flexible cloth netting traps baited with corn. He checks the traps three times a day to avoid injury or distress to the birds.

“As investigators, we have a responsibility to make sure that the birds are not in the trap any longer than necessary,” he says.

The Mexican state of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula is economically poor. Locals hunt the birds to feed the family. Managing the Ocellated turkeys for sport hunting is intended to bring North American dollars to the region.

“Sportsmen will pay several thousand dollars to come down here and hunt,” McRoberts says. “The local people will see that the bird has more value than one night’s meal.”

He thinks the population is already large enough to support some hunting, although he doesn’t yet have the data to support that. He saw flocks of over 300 during the 2010 field season. As North American Wild turkeys recovered from over-hunting that decimated the population, he believes Ocellated turkeys can, too.

“So much is unknown,” he said. “I get the idea they are doing pretty well.”

Tourists often see Ocellated turkeys at Mayan archaeological sites. The birds there have become habituated to humans, allowing people to approach to within five or ten feet. McRoberts is studying less accommodating birds in more challenging circumstances. Gasoline is often in short supply. It’s hot, and the roads are rough.

“I’ve had my share of flat tires,” he said. “I had to walk out of the jungle to get a new tire.”

Because Ocellated turkeys are listed as Near Threatened on the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species, special permits are required to bring trophy birds back to the U.S. However, no permits are needed to purchase or keep live birds. Sid Drenth keeps several pairs at his Fantasia Ranch in Weatherford, Texas.

He finds them flighty and wild. To avoid disturbing them, he houses them in a pen protected by large shrubs. Because he paid $800-$1,500 each for them, he

The Ocellated turkey is easily distinguished from its North American cousin. The body feathers of both sexes are an iridescent bronze-green color. Hens may appear duller in color with more green than bronze. The breast feathers of the sexes do not differ so they cannot be used to determine the sex.

“Anything that walks by can spook them,” he said.

Beautiful as they are, they’re too wild and sensitive to make good backyard birds. Drenth has never been able to breed them successfully, despite his experience with other exotic birds. He keeps peafowl, cranes, ibises, curassows and other African birds. Few people ask to buy one from him.

“If this is something you really like, be prepared for a loss,” he said.

Several zoos in the South and Southwest have Ocellated turkeys on display. Few of them have bred the birds successfully, either.

Their stunning plumage decorates the trees of the Yucatan jungle, delicately venturing onto the open grass to eat and breed. Perhaps that’s enough for this unusual native American turkey.

For more information, see the Fantasia Ranch Texaspeafowl website: www.texaspeafowl.com, or write to Sid & Beverly Drenth, P.O. Box 1029, Weatherford, TX 76086-1029; texaspeafowl@aol.com.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Traditional poultry workshop coming to SLO

Regional HENHOUSE Coaching Clinic
San Luis Obispo, California
October 29th - 30th 2012

Monday, October 29th
10:00am - Clinic begins!

10:00am - 12:00pm - "Strategy for Multiplication and Breeding for Sustainability"   
                                            Mr. Jim Adkins, Sustainable Poultry Specialist
                                            Mrs. Christine Heinrichs, Author & Poultry Historian   

12:00pm - 1:00pm - Lunch

1:00pm - 5:00pm  - "Breeding & Selecting Standard Bred Poultry for Preservation"
                                           On Farm Coaching - Babe's Birds Farm in Nipomo, CA
6:00pm - Dinner Reception and Awards!

Tuesday, October 30th
9:00am - 12:00pm - "California Laws and Regulations - Processing & Selling Poultry Products"
                                        - National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP)
                                        - California Department of Food & Agriculture
12:00pm - Lunch

1:00 - 5:00pm -  "Secrets to Cooking & Marketing Heritage Poultry" 
                                Mr. Steve Pope, Nationally Recognized Heritage Chef

5:00pm - Clinic Ends!

Location of Clinic:
UC Cooperative Extension
2156 Sierra Way Suite C 
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Location of  "On Farm Coaching"
Tony & Erin Krier - Babe's Birds Farm 
160 Swallow Lane
Nipomo, CA 93444

Turkeys of many colors

Local turkeys around Cambria display the variety of colors that occur naturally in turkeys. Turkeys are all the same species. They differ in plumage.

This light colored turkey has been sighted in our neighborhood since he was hatched last year. I wondered whether his color in the wild would be a disadvantage, making him more visible to predators, but thus far he's doing fine.

I wonder if he will have a flock this coming year and pass on his attractive and unusual coloring to a new generation.

Texas chickens

Peggy Henkel-Wolfe writes about local chicken keeping in the Denton Record-Chronicle:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A job working with waterfowl

Metzer Farms has a job for a waterfowl person:

We are large enough that we need someone that can take on some farm-wide responsibilities. We have from ten to eighteen employees, depending on the season.
Though I have two excellent supervisors with Leo in the hatchery and Guillermo for the breeders, there are projects and responsibilities that are not being done now. I need to spend more time on those things an owner needs to do: increase sales, look for areas of expansion, monitor potential regulations, etc.

A General Manager will take on some of the day-to-day responsibilities I have and do others that are not now being done. Metzer Farms will be a stronger, faster growing company with an excellent General Manager.

Responsibilities include:
Plan the schedule and numbers of replacement duck and goose breeders required each year
   and forecast egg production
Enhance and maintain the record keeping of the breeders: genetics, egg production, mortality, etc.
Improve the show quality of our ducks and geese through selection and the purchase of quality
   breeding stock
Closely monitor the production and availability of ducklings and goslings for our customers
Improve fertility of goose breeders
Monitor the health of the birds through necropsy, vaccinations and general observation
Monitor the weights of replacement and molted duck and goose breeders
Conduct trials and experiments on the farm and in the hatchery with the goal of improving production
   of ducklings and goslings
Explore more profitable uses of manure generated on the farm
Monitor the welfare of all the birds on the farm
Monitor inventory and conditioning of flighted Mallards
Enhance bio-security on the farm
Monitor sanitation in the hatchery
Become involved in California Quality Assurance Program
Help be on call to monitor incubators and hatchers during off work hours
Produce simple videos of activities on the farm for our website
Help write blogs
Work with customers to coordinate the dates and required paperwork for international orders
"Where else can you work with 25 breeds of ducks and geese..... and get paid?!" says John Metzer.

In addition to salary and health insurance, the job comes with a house: "newly remodeled, two bedrooms with a deck and beautiful view over our valley (and some of our geese)."

I'm confident there's a great poultry person out there for this job.