Know your Turkey Parts
A primer on snoods, dewlaps and other fleshy appendages.
By Russell A. Graves
Ask any turkey hunter about the sport and he or she will wax eloquent. Turkey hunting fulfills many senses, from the tactile to the cerebral — it’s a complete sport. Therefore, it’s no wonder people are so crazy about chasing the big birds.
But how much do you know about turkeys? The wild turkey stands out among Texas game birds because of the way the males spread their feathers during the animated spring mating strut, its naked head and its large size. As you might expect, turkeys have many distinctive parts that aren’t found on other birds. Although females share some of the same parts as their male companions, the male turkey, or tom, really puts on a show to highlight his parts.
Here’s a rundown:
Both sexes have spurs, although on females, the keratinized appendages are no more than small buttons protruding from the back of the leg a few inches above the foot. On males, spurs serve as a way to fend off other males when they spar for dominance when gathering a harem of hens. Spurs grow at the rate of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch a year and usually top off at about an inch and a half at 4 years of age.
A turkey’s fan is a prominent feature you’ll see when a tom struts. Made up of 18 tail feathers 12 to 15 inches long, toms display the fans to attract females during the breeding season. In juvenile males (also known as jakes), the middle tail feathers are longer than the rest of the tail feathers, but adult males have tail feathers uniform in length.
The tail feathers that make up the fan also aid in identifying the subspecies of turkey. On eastern wild turkeys, brown tips the tail feathers while the tips of Rio Grande turkeys’ tails are buff-colored.
Hanging down anywhere from an inch to more than 10 inches from a tom’s chest, the beard is actually a modified feather, even though it appears to be part of the turkey’s skin. The beard is coarse like a horse tail and grows three to five inches a year. A three-year-old bird would possibly have a nine-inch beard, and beards over 11 inches are rare.
The snood is a fleshy appendage that attaches just above the beak. When the tom relaxes, the snood is short — maybe half an inch long. When the tom struts, the snood engorges with blood and extends to hang down over the beak. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the snood has no known function.
On both the sexes, the caruncles are fleshy, bulbous bumps that grow over the head and neck. Even though they are less pronounced on females, the caruncles on a male turkey grow large and are especially pronounced on the lower portion of the neck. Usually pale in color, the caruncles engorge with blood and turn to bright red when the turkey struts or becomes aggressive.
Connecting the neck to the head just under the beak, the dewlap is present on both males and females but is more prominent on males. Like the caruncles and snood, the dewlap turns bright red when the tom gets excited.
When a turkey flies, the wing feathers push an enormous amount of air to lift the heavy birds. While strutting, the tom drags his wing feathers on the ground as he puffs out his breast feathers and fans his tail. Savvy turkey hunters can read the tracks and see the drag marks from where a turkey’s been strutting and know if there are males in the area. When toms drag their wing feathers, the tips become worn and frayed.
Eyes and Ears
The eyes and ears of a turkey make it one of the toughest of all Texas game animals. Their vision is the keenest among all Texas game animals and they are especially astute at pinpointing movement.
The turkey’s ears are simply small holes found just behind the eyes. Although no ear flap funnels sound, wild turkeys can still home in on noises from a mile away. Some contend that if wild turkeys could smell, they’d be nearly impossible to hunt.