Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Ocellated Turkey

Author's note: This post was last updated on 10/03/19
 Photo by George Harrison, published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Related to -- but very different from -- the turkey you might know, ocellated turkeys are some very eye-catching birds, as you can see from the photo above. 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.) The ancient Maya thought this bird had supernatural power.

"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.

One name for the ocellated turkey that the ancient Maya may have had in the Classic Period -- in the southern lowlands -- is ak'ach. This word has been figured to mean "turkey hen" but there's a theory that it might have been used for male and female ocellated turkeys.

Another word, which so far has been seen only in Postclassic writings -- the Dresden Codex and the Madrid Codex -- is kutz. This word may have been a word used in areas where the Yucatec Mayan language was at.

Female ocellated turkeys grow to be around 6.6 to 8.8 pounds, while the males grow to be 8.8 to 11 pounds.  The birds have bright, light blue necks and heads, and have red-orange eye-lids. On top of each bird's head is an extension called a crown. On their heads and necks are nodules or caruncles that come in yellow, orange, red, red-orange or even somewhat blue. (Caruncles tend to be lighter in color the higher up they are.) Both genders of bird also have red or red-pink legs (I've seen both stated), the males' including spurs. Then, of course, there's the feathers.

Ocellated turkeys's feathers are iridescent. (Females' iridescent feathers are not as strongly brilliant as males'.) As for the coloring of feathers with iridescence, 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 site does not include black, though.)

At the tail feathers' ends are blue spots with a black ring around them. This is the "ocellated" part of the name "ocellated turkey". The spots are supposed to look like eyes and are called ocelli, a word that comes from "oculus," Latin for "eye."

Function and Sourcing
Like other animals like snakes and jaguars, based of of their observations, the ancient Maya thought that ocellated turkeys were birds that had power. They used the ocellated turkey in their religion.

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 for their religious practices? 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.)

Google Books: "Wildlife Ecology and Management in Mexico"; Raul Valdez, J. Alfonso Ortega-S.; 2019

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

Five College Compass: Digital Collections: "Birds and Environmental Change in the Maya Area"; Peter Stuart; May 2015

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

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