Until recently, I’ve only been able to view Wild Turkeys from afar – glimpses seen from country roads, mostly, of foraging flocks out in the middle of snow-covered corn fields. Like giant dark chickens their snaky forms can be seen scraping away the snow cover in order to reach the scattered grains below. They appear nearly black when placed against this white backdrop, with only hints of lighter wing feathers. Even at a great distance, however, the wary birds note my stopping and they invariably start to wander back toward the cover of the woods and out of binocular range. I was grateful, therefore, for the chance to recently do some close observation of some fine Jakes (male birds) at Kensington Nature Center.
Close up, wild turkeys are very impressive. For those of you who have spent time watching these birds I certainly don’t have to tell you that. From their wrinkled blue & red skin heads to their iridescent body feathers, the North American Turkey certainly has the flashy looks. They transform into multicolored creatures when viewed in a bright winter sun. I was especially impressed with their wonderfully bronzed rump feathers for some reason. When the light hit them just right, these feathers seemed to glow like dull flames viewed through a sheet of isinglass. O.K., I was taking pictures of turkey butts … so what (see below).
If this wasn’t bad enough, I found myself focusing (literally) on two other particular male traits – their spurs and long dangling chest beards. Only the males possess leg spurs. They use them during courtship battles just like barnyard roosters and pheasants. Starting off as mere buttons, spurs eventually grow sharp and slightly curved as the Jakes mature. As you can see, both of these birds have decent spurs, but frankly, I was more interested in the beards.
Call it male envy, but if I could grow a chest beard I would do it in a minute, although I admit that multiple chest hairs would be nice for a start). Like spurs, only the males grow them (although a very small percentage of females will end up sporting small beards. There are also a few cases of bearded human females but none of them have chest beards as far as I know. Please… don’t let me know if this is not true).
This ornament is a unique structure. It grows out of a papillae of spongy skin located at the midline where the base of the neck meets the breast. On rare occasions there are birds that have multiple chest beards sprouting from the same vicinity. Collectively, the multiple beards are small and never as impressive as a single large one. It’s hard to characterize just what turkey beards are made of. Because birds don’t produce hair, it is safe to say that they are not hair but, then again, they are not modified feathers either. Feathers are molted on a regular basis and Jake turkeys do not molt their beards. Whatever they actually are, they look and feel just like stiff bristles from the tail of a small mammal such as a woodchuck. Perhaps there is some Native story out there that tells of the time when a woodchuck ran smack into a turkey and had to escape through the bird’s rear end –leaving the rest of it’s once long tail sticking out of the turkey’s chest (if not I’ll make one up when I have some free time).
Because they grow throughout the life of the bird, some turkey beards have been recorded at well over a foot long, but most are significantly shorter. All are limited in length by the height of the bird and the elements. Young turkey beards are long and slender. They taper off into wispy tassels. Older birds have thicker structures that look as if they were trimmed into a brush-like ending. Why? Well, it has to do with feeding.
Turkeys have to lean forward and bend down in order to feed. On older birds, the beard has reached a length where comes in contact with the ground whenever the bird is in this head-down position (see below & here). Successive ground contacts wear off the ends and makes for a neatly trimmed appearance. Other factors, such as snow and weathering can also break down the tassel tips as well. This is how the turkey Jake keeps his beard so nicely trimmed.
So, there you have it, a semi-thorough discussion of turkey beards and spurs. We’ve spent so much time talking about this aspect that the birds have now run off. I was just going to wax poetic about the snood – that fleshy projection on the head. This will have to wait for another time, so please excuse me while I go off and flex my chest hair.