What's causing bare breasted birds?

I have been hunting spring gobblers for 40-plus years, and just about every gobbler I’ve ever shot, including lots of jakes, has had his breast void of feathers, exposing white skin over the bone and cartilage of the front of their breast. This phenomenon has been seen in birds harvested in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas and Michigan. I have always thought that this was due to the bird doing a lot of breeding but recently was told that it was caused by the birds gobbling on the roost and rubbing their breast against the limb. What really causes these bare spots? Is this a spring thing only or present during the entire year?  Do the feathers grow back during the balance of the year?

Attalee Taylor, via email

Almost every turkey hunter notices things about the gobblers they harvest that raise questions in their minds. Some questions are concerned with very rarely seen things, others are about common occurrences and at some point the hunter thinks, “Gee, I wonder why that happens?” The body feathers of wild turkeys form groups that are called tracts. There are three tracts of feathers that run from the naked part of the head and upper neck of a gobbler. Where the tracts meet, there are lines or grooves. Two such grooves are located on the sides of the neck and run across the top of the wings down the back to the tail. The third groove starts at the base of the large caruncles on the upper neck and runs down the center of the breast to the vent or anal area of the bird.

The feathers covering the breastbone (sternum) are separated by this tract line or groove exposing the skin on the breastbone. A few small feathers are found on that patch of bare skin, but they do not cover the exposed skin very well. The patch is covered when the bird is standing because the adjacent feathers are large, square-ended and broad. They merge across the breastbone as the bird preens, covering the breast well. When the bird is on the roost settling down for the night, the legs are bent, tightening its grip on the branch, causing the keel or breastbone to rest on the branch. The overnight contact with the branch wears the few small feathers present on the skin over the breastbone, so in the spring there is little evidence of any feathers covering the breastbone. When you pluck a spring gobbler you will find small gray feathers near the breastbone that serve as a light secondary layer under the major breast feathers. Those are the only feathers near the keel. As the bird ages and gains weight, a callous develops on the skin over the breastbone limiting the growth of feathers so the narrow bare spot is more noticeable. Roost gobbling is done both in the roosting position and with the bird standing on the limb. Vigorous gobbling in the roost position might help to wear the feathers too, but a narrow bare spot is seen on birds taken in the fall as well.

— Dr. Tom

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