A. A friend of mine saw a white turkey with a flock of wild birds. Is the white bird an escaped domestic turkey?
The white hen is probably a color phase known as the smoky-gray. From a distance, these birds appear to be white, though they are not albino. They have dark eyes and normal-colored legs. Up close you can actually see all the colors of the typical eastern wild turkey. However, the colors are muted or ghost-like, making the bird appear white or light gray. This color phase is a recessive trait and it is likely that the bird's mother was a typically colored wild turkey. However, both her mother and her father had a recessive gene for this color phase. So, it is likely that the offspring of the light colored hen would be of typical color. She would have to mate with a gobbler that had the recessive trait in order to produce white poults and the chances of that happening are pretty slim.
B. Are other odd colors ever seen in real wild turkeys? Yes, three other recessive traits for coloration occur occasionally in wild turkeys, but few people will ever see them.
i. True albinism is extremely uncommon and has only been reported a handful of times. Such birds are pure white with pink eyes.
ii. On the other end of the spectrum is the melanistic or black color phase. A melanistic wild turkey is very dark in color and areas that are typically light colored on the bird would be dark as well.
iii. An erythristic or red color phase is seen occasionally.
C. Why do some hens have beards? Turkey beards are specialized structures of the skin that arise from a raised area of skin called a papilla. While all hens have a papilla, only around 10 percent (1 to 29 percent, depending on the population) actually have a beard. Hen beards tend to be shorter and thinner than gobbler beards. Bearded hens are able to reproduce successfully.
D. How common are multiple beards? Fewer than 10 percent of gobblers have more than one beard. In the case of multiple beards, the gobbler has more than one papilla and a different beard emerges from each one.
E. Are blond beards unusual? Typically, turkey beards are dark gray or black in color. Sometimes hunters note a white residue on the beard. This residue is a waxy substance that adheres to the bristles as the beard grows out of the papilla. It is usually confined to the first few inches of the beard. Lighter colors are sometimes seen on other portions of the beard. The most common are bands of amber (orange) or blond across the beard horizontally. These light colors are likely areas of less melanin, the dark pigment that colors the beard. The lack of melanin may be a dietary deficiency or it may be inherited. In any case, the lighter colors indicate areas of weakness in the beard that may be more likely to break off. On occasion the whole beard will be blond or amber in color.
F. Is it possible for gobblers to have multiple spurs? Multiple spurs are quite rare. Only one in perhaps a thousand gobblers has more than one spur on each leg. Double- and triple-spurred gobblers have been reported.
G. Why do some birds have white in their tail feathers? The white barring or markings on the central tail feathers of a gobbler occurs with some regularity on adult gobblers. It is estimated that about 10 percent of gobblers exhibit this kind of barring on their central tail feathers. The white barring is usually confined to the central two or three pairs of retrices or major tail feathers. This odd coloration is sometimes observed on jakes and occasionally noted in adult hens. It is not restricted to eastern wild turkeys. Biologists have noted white barring on the central tail feathers of Merriams turkeys, Rio Grande wild turkeys and the Florida or Osceola subspecies, too.
Biologists theorize that this coloration may be caused by a dietary deficiency. Poultry experts have documented feather color abnormalities in domestic fowl and traced those abnormalities to vitamin deficiency. A dietary deficiency may be associated with the condition of the wild turkey when those feathers are growing. The central tail feathers are molted in mid-summer when many other feathers are being replaced. The demand for nutrients to grow feathers may exceed the availability of those nutrients when the molt is occurring in some birds or in certain years resulting in the barring of the tail feathers.