The wild turkey is hailed by many as our nation’s favorite game bird — although waterfowl and upland hunters might have an argument or two about that.
Barrels of ink and terabytes of data have been written about the five wild turkey subspecies found from Maine to Mexico, Florida to Washington state. If you’re a hunter then no doubt you’ve examined your harvested turkeys time and again and have questioned: What’s this and what’s that? Why does this thing on its beak shrink? How can a turkey see me flick a mosquito from 100 yards? Here are some answers.
The snood is that funny thingy hanging off the top of a male turkey’s beak. They’re soft and fleshy, like the knobby skin on the turkey’s neck. When a gobbler’s excited and strutting, the snood grows and hangs off the side of the beak.
If a gobbler’s running — coming to your call or decoy on a rope — the snood is flopping around. When engorged it turns dark red. Some research studies have found that longer snoods are considered more dominant among males and desirable by hen turkeys. Apparently, in the turkey world, size does matter.
The spurs on a gobbler’s legs are an indication of age and prized by hunters — the longer and sharper the better. Spurs are used for fighting and self-defense. In either situation, a turkey’s churning, slashing legs armed with sharp spurs can deliver severe injuries.
Spurs are formed from a bony core and covered by keratin, which also forms the scales of the turkey’s legs. This keratin is similar to human toe or finger nails. It grows on the turkey leg scales until the bird is about 1½ years old, providing a protective shield. The spurs on gobblers’ legs continue growing, starting as nubs when they’re jakes and then growing longer with age. Some hens might have short spurs but it’s rare.
The Wattle: The wattle, a thin membrane attached under the beak perpendicular to the neck, is another fleshy protuberance on the gobbler’s head that might have something to do with sexual attraction. It also changes color when the gobbler is excited. Turkeys aren’t the only birds with a wattle, either. You’ll find them on chickens, prairie chickens, and some vultures, starlings and other birds.
The Eyes: A turkey’s eyesight is phenomenal. With just a slight turn of the head turkeys can easily see 360 degrees. Some researchers believe turkeys and chickens have greater color receptors than other birds, and also might be able to more greatly recognize movement. Even small movements. Have you ever been rock solid still in full camo, wearing a head net, in the shadows and had a turkey bust you? Sure you have.
The Ears: Thank goodness turkeys have a lousy sense of smell or hunters might never kill one without the use of a rifle. If you’ve ever taken a good look at a turkey’s head, you know the ear hole is just about as big as its eyeball. If they hear something, they can quickly zero in on it. This one-two punch provides a fantastic defense mechanism, although during spring it works against lovelorn gobblers seeking hens and falling for hunters’ calls.
It’s believed that turkeys can hear gobbles up to a mile away. Ever stood on a ridge in a quiet woods and wondered if a bird is “too far to call to.” Maybe not. Cranking out a big series of yelps in windy conditions or a normal routine on a quiet morning likely will carry and be heard farther than you might expect. Turkeys hear low frequency sounds pretty well, too.
The Beard: Is there anything more gaudy than a gobbler’s beard? For whatever reason, the beard is what gets a lot of hunters’ motors running. They’re all unique; some fat like a paintbrush, others thin and scraggly, and some toms have multiple beards. Beards are formed of specialized feathers that look like bristles and grow from one follicle on the chest known as the papilla. These feathers are called filoplumes. On multiple-bearded birds, the beards grow from separate follicles.
Beards grow longer as birds mature and, often, become thicker. Young turkeys, the jakes, have shorter stubby beards of just 2 to 3 inches. Bearded hens are rare but do occur. Long beards are susceptible to being worn down when dragged over dirt or rocks. They also can become brittle and break more easily due to nutritional deficiencies; some hunters mistakenly call this “beard rot.”