Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Ocellated Turkey

An ocellated turkey, with its shimmering feathers. Photo by George Harrison, published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Related to -- but very different from -- the turkey you might know, occellated turkeys are some very eye-catching birds, from their bright, light blue heads, yellow and orange nodules/caruncles to their shimmering feathers. They live in north Belize, Guatemala (in the Petén region,) and the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Campeche (though people have seen them in east Tabasco and northeast Chiapas too.) To the ancient Maya, this bird was special, and they used it in their religious practices.

"Kutz" in glyphs. Free-hand drawn
image by me using FAMSI's
copy of the Madrid Codex and the 2016
reference below as guides.
When looking for their scientific name, you will find the bird has two: Meleagris ocellata and Agriocharis ocellata. The second name, Agriocharis ocellata, was the first name the ocellated turkeys were given and is not used for them anymore.

The ancient Maya had more than one name for the ocellated turkey too. So far, it's been found that in their writings, the ancient Maya had two words. They used kutz for the ocellated turkey, and they also had the word ulum. Ulum could mean other turkeys, but the Maya used it mostly for the ocellated turkey.

Feather Features
Like the resplendent quetzal, ocellated turkeys are known for having iridescent feathers. (Females' iridescent feathers are not as strongly brilliant as males'.) Specific descriptions of the iridescent colors differ a bit. Here's a list of iridescent colors from the Cornell Lab of Orinthology's website Neotropical Birds: bronze, gold, black, blue, and green. (Another section of the same page does not include black, though.)

(Speaking of this bird's feathers, the "ocellated" part of "ocellated turkey" comes from the bird's tail feathers. Near the tail feathers' tips are blue "spots" -- these are supposed to look like eyes and are called ocelli, a word that comes from "oculus," which is Latin for "eye.")

To see some ocellated turkeys in action, here's a video that was created by the YouTube channel Trans-Americas Journey. It shows ocellated turkeys walking around (and one making a display of itself) at a Belize lodge called the Chan Chich Lodge.

Like other animals like snakes and jaguars, the ancient Maya used the ocellated turkey in their religion in more than one way. (Archaeologists have found that the ancient Maya practice of using  turkeys -- and not just ocellated turkeys -- in rituals goes as far back as the Late Preclassic.) The ancient Maya also ate ocellated turkeys.

Drawings from "Animal Figures in the Maya Codices" of ocellated
turkeys. When compared to 93a and 91a of the Madrid Codex, they
look like good copies.
How did the Maya get their ocellated turkeys? A known way was to catch them -- the Madrid Codex has two images (page 91a and page 93a) that show them being caught using snares as well as baskets. 

It's possible that the ancient Maya had a practice of catching and raising ocellated turkeys. (There's a theory that there were Maya at the site of Mayapán who had flocks of them!) However, the birds don't like being kept and won't start families if they are.

Consideration: A Wahy?
In the Classic Period, it looks like the ancient Maya may have seen the ocellated turkey as a sort of wahy. (Wahys are spirits that, depending on the type, were either mascots or protectors of dynasties or were a weapon. (On a related note, Postclassic images that include ocellated turkeys seem to see them as more good beings.)

Mesoweb: "The Pari Jounral" Volume 16, Issue 4: "The Ocellated Turkey in Maya Thought"; Ana Luisa Izquierdo y de la Cueva, Maria Elena Vega Villalobos; Spring 2016

Google Books: The Archaeology of Mesoamerican Animals"; Christopher M. Götz, Kitty F. Emery (editor); 2013

Mesoweb: "Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs: Workshop Handbook"; Harri Kettunen, Christophe Helmke; 2008

Google Books: "The Turkey: An American Story"; Andrew F. Smith; 2006

Cornell University: Neotropical Birds: Ocellated Turkey Meleagris ocellata: Appearance

Cornell University: Neotropical Birds: Ocellated Turkey Meleagris ocellata: Distribution

ITIS Standard Report Page: Meleagris ocellata

The Free Dictionary: Ocelli

Image Credit:
US Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library: search result: Occelated Turkey
(Tip: I had a bit of difficulty using this site, as the links to picture's personal pages wouldn't load everything and the download button wasn't working. What worked for me is to save the image to favorites (you don't need to sign up,) then go to favorites and pick your preferred download option. Both worked for me. However, when I tried again later, the site wasn't working. You might have to experiment yourself.)

Project Gutenberg: "Animal Figures in the Maya Codices"; Alfred M. Tozzer; Glover M. Allen; 1910