Wild Turkey Oddities: Feathers
Turkey oddities are the result of genetic variations that cause one or more turkeys in a flock to differ from the rest. These genetic differences may be nature's way of improving a species, but that isn't always the case.
Each subspecies has highly visible feathers, which match the colors of their habitat and provide a better chance of survival.
A good example is to look at each subspecies of wild turkey's rump feathers and tips of their tail feathers. Eastern and Osceola turkeys, in the heavily wooded areas of the East and South show relatively dark, chestnut colors. Rio Grande turkeys have buff tail feather tips that match the plains and shrub areas they inhabit. Merriam's turkeys, found primarily in snowy mountain areas, have rump feathers and tail feather tips that are nearly white.
Differences in feather coloration, however, are probably the most reported oddities. The late James Kazmierski and his son, Steven, compiled a detailed article titled, "Turkey Plumage: Color and Composition," in which they state that the genetics responsible for these variations have not been well documented. The Kazmierski's list eight plumage types found in domestic turkeys. They go on to speculate that since domestic turkeys originated from wild stock, most of the genes responsible for such plumage types are probably found in wild populations as well.
One of the most common color variations is the "smoky gray" color phase. Turkeys with this color appear white from a distance. Upon closer examination, however, it is obvious that these birds' appearance is due to a loss of brown or bronze pigments while the black areas of the feathers remain. Every year, the NWTF receives reports of turkeys in a smoky gray color phase, and many turkey hunters have seen at least one during their time in their field. This recessive trait seems to occur more frequently among hens, but is still occasionally seen in gobblers.
While this trait is probably detrimental to survival--it makes the turkey more visible--some smoky gray wild turkeys may survive for several years. One smoky gray hen in Georgia was observed with a normal brood of poults each spring for five years. Melanistic (black) and erythritic (red) color variations also are reported each year, but are not as common as the smoky gray phase. Many of these turkeys are striking in appearance and stand out visibly when seen among flocks of normal looking wild turkeys.
The least common color variation is albinism, or the total lack of color pigments. True albinos are seldom found among wild turkeys.
Most hunters see color variations for the first time and think that the condition is a result of crossbreeding with a domestic turkey. Many wildlife biologists used to think the same thing. But, these differences occur regularly in flocks that have no contact with domestic turkeys.
— James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., NWTF Chief Conservation Officer