Guy Harvey, an Oakland Game Calls pro staff member hunting in Chesterfield County, Virginia, harvested this 22-pound gobbler with abnormal toenail growth in April 2023. Dr. Tom explains what may have caused the oddity.
Dr. Tom's Response:
That is a great photo, and given the spur length, that gobbler had been around a while. I usually attribute the curly toenail phenomenon to a deformity or injury that turns the tips of the toes up, losing normal contact with the ground. With a change in the structure and conformation of the toes, the nails do not touch the ground as often as they would in a normal foot. This is the case even when the bird is scratching for food items. As a result, the nails do not wear in a normal pattern. Instead of remaining short and sharp, they begin to curl. Once that pattern is established, the nails make even less contact with the ground and the odd shape worsens. Human fingernails are allowed to grow in some cultures, and, if allowed to grow long enough, they curl like the toenails on this gobbler (it’s pretty gross in humans).
The photo provides a good look at the feet. If you look closely at the hind toe on the left side of the photo and the center toes on both feet, you can notice an abnormal shape. The hind toe is swollen and the center toes exhibit swelling and appear to be bent where they should normally be straight and in full contact with the ground while the bird walks, runs or scratches in the leaves for food. The last joint on the center toes on both feet seem to point up instead of down as they normally would.
There is no apparent injury to the feet. Other than the odd angles of the toes and the curled toenails, the scaly tarsus and metatarsus appear to be the usual pink color. The causes of the deformed toes could be a genetic abnormality, nutritional issues when the gobbler was a poult, physical injury or disease. A wildlife pathologist with whom I shared the photo indicated that he has seen deformity in the toes of gallinaceous birds (includes turkeys, chickens, quail and other landfowl) that recovered from fowl pox or a bacterial dermatitis infection. Based on the lack of evidence of physical injury, I would lean toward possible genetic, nutritional or disease recovery options as a cause. In any case, the odd, curly toenails and apparently deformed toes on this gobbler did not have a major impact on its condition. It seems to have survived a good while!