When scoring a turkey, the most substantial multiplier is beard length. That’s why when you look at the record books for “biggest” toms, you’ll find gobblers with multiple beards at the top of the list. While most male turks only carry a single beard, extraordinary specimens can reach double digits (the world record is 13).
“Multiple beards on a bird is not a common occurrence, with estimates suggesting that less than 10% of toms sport more than one beard,” said Dr. Mike Chamberlain, our favorite wild turkey researcher, from the University of Georgia.
Beards grow from a papilla—an oval-shaped, raised part of the skin on a turkey’s breast. Most male turkeys have just one papilla. For every papilla a turkey grows, an additional beard develops. And, although hen turkeys also have papilla, they just don’t usually express it.
So, what exactly causes multiple papilla?
“Why some toms have multiple papilla and others do not is unclear,” Chamberlain said. “The occurrence of multiple beards doesn’t seem to follow a pattern based on subspecies or area. It’s potentially a genetic trait, but that’s simply speculation on my part. I don’t see multiple beards being helpful in attracting more mates, as the multiple beards are hard to see until the bird is in hand.”
For as much mystery surrounds multi-bearded toms, there’s even less known about no-bearded toms. According to banding records from the National Wild Turkey Federation, only about two in 1,000 gobblers have no beard at all—.002% of the population. And just like how a three-bearded tom has three papilla or a six-bearded tom has six papilla, a zero-bearded tom has no papilla at all.
While a beardless tom won’t get you in the record books, it hardly makes for good bragging rights either. It takes real turkey nerds like us to appreciate that sort of trophy.
Feature image via John Hafner.