Wild Turkeys are spectacular birds, coming in an array of colors and sporting a variety of eye-popping appendages. The wattle—the colorful flap of bare skin hanging from a turkey’s head—may be the most familiar feature to folks. Both it and the fleshy growth on a male’s forehead and bill, called a snood, turn brilliant hues of pink, red, white, and blue when males display during the breeding season.
But in addition to all that flashy flesh, there’s another curious trait that turkeys tout: their beards. Turkey beards are plumes of dark brown or black feathers—more hair-like than a typical feather—that protrude from the bird’s chest. “If you had it in your hand, it has the consistency of a miniature horsetail,” says Gary Norman, a retired gamebird biologist at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
While all toms—adult male turkeys—have beards, nearly 10 percent of hens also have one, albeit a much stubbier, wispier version. Why only some females have beards is not known, but male beards are believed to be yet another tool for mate selection. They can “indicate dominance and health,” says Kelsey Sullivan, a gamebird specialist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Turkey beards start sprouting when youngsters are just five months old and continue to grow throughout a bird’s life, at a rate of nearly five inches a year. This allows biologists a coarse way to age males: One-year-old birds usually have beards measuring a few inches, while older males can have beards in the double digits. “Anything over 10 inches is a really nice beard,” says Matt DiBona, a wildlife biologist at the National Turkey Wildlife Federation (NTWF). The longest individual beard length recorded on NTWF’s website is 11.75 inches, and some toms might grow two, three, or even 13 separate beards. In those rare situations, most are just short, wispy feathers with a single dominant cluster; however, one impressive tom grew multiple beards that measured a whopping sum of 26.5 inches.
Turkeys can lose their beards several ways. Beard rot, caused by vitamin deficiency, may result in their beards shearing off. Longer beards can also snap from the heavy weight of snow and ice that collects on them during winter. Fraying from being dragged on the ground is also an issue. In fact, terrain heavily influences beard length: Turkeys inhabiting rocky terrain may have overall shorter beards than individuals foraging across flat, sandy ground, says Norman.
The abundance of bearded hens varies by region, perhaps affected by previous conservation efforts to recover Wild Turkeys, says DiBona. In the mid-1900s, wildlife biologists trapped turkeys and moved them across state boundaries to restore severely depleted turkey populations due to hunting and habitat loss. Wild Turkeys sharply rebounded, inhabiting every state in the United States except for Alaska, and peaked at 7 million birds by the early 2000s.
If biologists trapped a higher percentage of bearded females to reintroduce elsewhere, then some new populations could have more bearded hens because that founding group of breeders had more beard genes. “That in itself could be one of the driving forces on the prevalence of bearded hens,” says Mark Hatfield, a wildlife biologist with NTWF.
Regardless, bearded females still make up just a small percentage of the total Wild Turkey population, so if you see a bird with a long, full beard, you are probably safe calling it a male. But to be sure, you can use other diagnostic clues—like the sharp spurs on males’ legs, used to compete with other males, or the feathers only on top of females' heads—to know whether you’ve got a gobbler or a hen on your hands.