The beard of a turkey is a curious oddity. Actually, it is not a beard or hair at all. It is a modified feather that forms kind of a stiff bristle. Since the cluster of bristles resembles a beard of sorts, people began referring to it as a beard.
To a hunter, the beard is considered one of the trophy parts of the turkey that is saved for display as every beard is a little different and it is easily preserved. Beards vary in length and thickness and can have various curls and kinks.
- What determines the length of a turkey’s beard?
As a general rule of thumb, the beard can be used to roughly age a turkey though the spur length is a more accurate measure. A young male turkey that is born in the spring will be almost a year old by the time hunting season arrives the following spring. He is referred to as a “jake” and his beard length will vary from barely visible to a maximum of about 4-5 inches long. By the next spring he will be a 2 year old and sport a beard up to 9-10″. Beards over 10″ are typically found on birds of 3 years or older though few toms will grow a beard longer than 11-11 1/2″.
- Non-Typical Turkeys!
On rare occasions some gobblers can grow multiple beards. Generally, most turkeys will only have one beard though a small percentage can grow multiple individual beards. They will all be aligned vertically with a small separation between each beard. Typically, There will be one primary, normal sized beard with multiple smaller, thinner beards above. These extra beards will usually vary from a few hairs to approximately 1/4″ in diameter and be significantly shorter than the primary beard. I have personally harvested (2) toms with triple beards. Toms with more than 6-7 beards have been reported but are very rare.
- What is Beard Rot?
There is another factor that can effect the beard length of a turkey. It is known as Beard Rot and is caused by malnutrition rather than parasites as many believe. Beard Rot is an interruption in Melanin production which gives the Beard it’s color and strength.
A turkey suffering from a Melanin deficiency will develop a light colored band or ring around the beard. Some birds may have a completely blond beard under severe cases. With the Band or Ring situation, when the turkey begins producing melanin again, the beard will return to its healthy black color. However, this band is weaker at this point and as the beard fatigues from flexing, it will eventually break off and the beard will have a truncated end with a blond to reddish coloration to it at the tip.
- What is the Purpose of the Turkeys Beard?
A lot is not known about what purpose the turkey’s beard serves. Many believe it serves no purpose but nature does not create features on animals that have no purpose. From my own observations, I believe the beard is a visual cue, an identifying part of the turkey that allows other turkeys to recognise him as a male from long distance. If you have ever watched a gobbler strutting in a field or other place where he can be seen from a long distance, his beard projects out and is very much more pronounced then when he is feeding or milling around. Every so often a strutting bird will break out of strut and stretch out tall and make his beard stick straight out. He will almost always be looking at or for another turkey and I believe this is a signal just like the turkey’s fan and increased size when he blows up into a strut.
- A Hen with a Beard? That’s Just Wrong!
Another oddity among turkeys is the phenomena where a Hen will actually develop a beard. This is also fairly rare but can be found in up to 20% of the Hens in some populations. I have found it to be more rare than that in my travels. Personally, I have harvested three hens with visible beards that I can recall and that is after 30 years of hunting. Two actually had a pretty nice beard that measured about 7 1/2″. As a rule, the beard found on a hen will be very thin and seldom be thicker than a quarter of an inch. I did film a hunt a couple years ago where a good friend of mine missed a bearded hen. Be sure to verify your states game laws before harvesting a bearded hen!
- Preserving your Trophy’s Beard!
There are several ways to remove the beard off of your trophy tom if you plan to preserve it. Obviously, you can remove it with a sharp knife. To do this you need to cut only the fat and soft skin from around the end of the beard. Do not cut through the tough gristle type section that the beard bristles attach to. That is what is holding the whole thing together. I prefer this method myself.
The second method is to just peal it off the birds chest but you run the risk of damaging the beard with this method. If you look closely where the beard attaches you will notice a slight change in color where the base of the beard attaches to the skin and this is where you can peel the beard off. This will leave enough of the beards base to keep the bristles from falling apart.
Once you have it off the bird you need to apply some drytan taxidermy preservative to it which will include a bug proofer. Let the beard dry until the butt end is completely hard but do not place it in the sun. After it is completely dry I like to apply some spray on polyurethane to the butt and base of the bristles for added protection.
That’s pretty well covers all there is to know about a turkey beard. Hopefully, you can add a few more beards to your collection this spring.
Best of Hunts,
P.S. If you have any turkey hunting questions or comments, take a few moments to jot them down and I’ll be glad to respond with any help I can provide, L.S.