It wasn't always as easy to spot a Wild Turkey as it is today. Once decimated across the continent, the gobbler’s population has boomed in recent decades. Now you can find them not only browsing the forest understory but also intimidating suburbanites in streets, driveways, and backyards. The birds are unmistakable; their signature plump shape, bald heads, and reddish-brown plumage are well known even to casual naturalists throughout the Lower 48.
But not all Wild Turkeys sport this classic chestnut look. They also come in four limited-edition colors, or morphs: smoke, red, black, and white. Although many people colloquially call them “phases,” these colorations aren’t temporary looks; according to Mark Hatfield, staff biologist at the National Wild Turkey Foundation, “they were born that way, and they will stay that way.”
These rare turkey varieties are caused by genetic mutations passed from one generation to the next. This heredity means that certain morphs can become more abundant in certain regions, wherever the genetic variants arise. “It does occur naturally, and it’s also not indicative or associated with interbreeding with domestic turkeys,” Hatfield says. “It is just a genetic mutation that shows up periodically and can be persistent in a local area.”
Smoke is the most common Wild Turkey morph: Biologists estimate 1 in every 100 Wild Turkeys has this muted coloration. A smoke-morph bird looks like its name suggests, with a light wispy gray with graphite and black details along the body, wings, and tail. Despite the dramatic monochrome look, this turkey still has some blue and pink coloration on its head and neck, but not nearly as much as on a standard Wild Turkey. While pretty, this rare plumage doesn't necessarily help the birds. The lighter color stands out in a flock, making individuals easy targets for predators and coveted trophies for some hunters.
Of those smoke-phase survivors that make it into adulthood, most or all seem to be female. In a 2011 column for the Minnesota Star-Tribune, outdoors photographer Bill Marchel says he has “never positively identified a smoke-phase tom turkey” over the course of years observing the birds in the wild. “I find that odd because I know I've seen more than 100 smoke-phase birds over the years,” he writes. “You'd think I would have encountered at least one male.” Why this pattern exists—whether related to genetics, attention from predators, or other factors—is not known.
Much rarer than the smoke morph is the erythristic, or red, variety of this bird. It's also much harder to identify, in part because your standard Wild Turkey plumage also has reddish undertones, and as a result we don't know much about them. Photos posted online by hunters suggest that vibrant, rust-red tail feathers can be a giveaway. (Several hunting sites also report shootings of “cinnamon phase” turkeys, which may be a nickname for the red morph.)
Wild Turkeys come in two more colors: white and black. These versions are caused by albinism and melanism, conditions which occur in many animals. Melanistic Wild Turkeys overproduce the pigment melanin, making them jet black in color—the gothest turkey out there. Rarer, though, are albinos, a condition marked by white skin and feathers along with light pink or red eyes. Seeing an albino turkey would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience: It's estimated that only 1 in 100,000 Wild Turkeys is albino. Their eye-catching plumage also puts them at greater risk of an early demise. “Those birds do not have a high level of fitness because they do not have the natural coloration and the camouflage that has been evolved over time,” Hatfield says.
So next time you see a Wild Turkey flock, don't assume you've seen them all before. Take a moment to really look at each individual bird in case a rare color morph is among them. You never know—maybe you'll discover something else surprising about our often overlooked wild gobblers.