In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here’s a question from our August 2015 issue:
In the April 2015 issue, you described differences in the shape of male and female turkey droppings. It got me to thinking about turkey beards. Are they hair? — Sean Harrison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A Wild Turkey’s “beard” is the tuft that looks a bit like a miniature horsetail dangling from its breast. Year-old males have beards up to about five inches long, while toms three or more years old can have beards that are 10 inches or longer. Rarely, a tom will have one primary beard and one or two smaller beards just above it. About 5-10 percent of female turkeys may also sport short, thin beards.
The bristles in the cluster of stiff filaments are hair-like, but they are not hair. They are feather-like structures called mesofiloplumes. Their structural proteins are similar to those of feathers, but they lack a follicle and other characteristics of most feathers. Unlike feathers, turkey beards grow continuously. However, they suffer from wear and tear, so beards longer than 12 inches are not common.
Scientists consider the unique mesofiloplumes, which they refer to as filamentous integumentary appendages, important in understanding how feathers evolved from dinosaur skin and scales.
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.
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