COLUMN: Wild turkey feather facts

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     With Thanksgiving quickly approaching you might encounter the random thought or game night trivia question: “So how many feathers do turkeys have?”

     Although turkey may be part of many of our Thanksgiving celebration meals, most of us give little thought to the attributes of these fascinating birds.

     A Bird of Many Colors. Body feathers of wild turkeys are often described as being iridescent. The color you see depends on the lighting and angle you are viewing the feathers. Wild turkey body feathers seem to shimmer like a mirage, sometimes seeming to be gold, red, bronze, green, or even purple. Overall they give the turkeys a generally brown appearance helping them to blend in with their forested habitat. If you were to look closely at a single body feather from a wild turkey, you would notice that close to ¾ of it is grayish fluffy down. Down feathers are essential for warmth and survival during cold Iowa winters.

     Who’s the Boss? Male wild turkeys, known as toms, are commonly pictured strutting in Thanksgiving décor. Their beautiful deep brown tail feathers, streaked with stunning horizontal zigzag barring and a wide dark band at the top each feather, give them an air of importance as they fan their tail and display to one and all that they are the best looking by far. Each adult turkey sports, on average, 18 long ornamental tail feathers. Although mainly used to look their best, tail feathers also come in handy for helping to steer and balance when in flight. Adult toms can often be identified from young males, called jakes, by the length of their middle tail feathers. Jakes generally have longer middle tail feathers evening out with the other tail feathers by the age of two.

     Beards are in! Tom, jake, and sometimes hen turkeys have a special hair-like modified type of feather, a mesofiloplume, commonly known as a beard. A turkey’s beard grows from a single oval area on their chest, called a papilla. The number of bristles in the beard can vary. Beards can help indicate the age of a turkey, growing 3-5 inches each year, beards will reach the ground on older adult tom turkeys.

     Who said they can’t fly? Wild turkeys have 10 long stiff curved primary wing feathers and 19 shorter secondary flight feathers, which aid them in quick bursts of low altitude flight. Turkeys have been known to attain flight speeds up to 50 mph. Flying helps wild turkeys evade predators and roost in trees at night.

     Growing up fast! Newly hatched turkey poults may only spend their first 24 hours around the nest site. Once all eggs are hatched and nestlings have dried and fluffed their downy feathers they hit the trail following mom in search of juicy insects, worms, and spiders to eat. Warm downy nestling feathers will be replaced by more adult looking feathers by mid to late summer as they learn how to forage on the forest floor.

     Dust bath anyone? Wild turkeys enjoy a good dust bath, visiting dust bathing sites often. Dust applied to feathers helps deter pests and prevent grease and matted feathers. Wild turkeys spend hours preening and caring for their feathers as they remove dirt and repair or remove ruffled or damaged feathers.

     Domesticated turkeys are often white. Over time, domesticated turkeys have been selectively bred to be larger and white in color. White feathers when plucked do not leave dark spots on the skin, thus lending to a more appealing table presence.

     What is a “smoke phase” turkey? Sometimes wild turkeys will vary in color from the common brown. “Smoke phase” wild turkeys are white but have dark eyes, normal colored legs and beaks, and some dark feathers interspersed within the white. Truly albino wild turkeys are very rare and will have all white feathers and red or pink colored eyes.

     Feathers of many uses! Turkey feathers have been used by Native Americans for thousands of years as fletching along arrow shafts, in ceremonies, in decoration, as ornamental hair ties, and on traditional regalia worn in ceremonies. Throughout the years, turkey feathers have been used as writing tools, stuffing for pillows, blankets and clothing, in many crafts and artwork, in floral decorations, and as decoration.

     So how many feathers do wild turkeys really have? If you are patient enough to count the feathers of an eastern wild turkey, you should find the count to be somewhere between 5,000-6,000 feathers of differing colors, sizes, and functions. These varied and vital feathers provide warmth, insulation, camouflage, protection, lift and directional support for flight, touch sensation, and ornamentation. Feathers are truly fascinating!

     Enjoy your thanksgiving meal and share your turkey trivia.



Subscriber Login