I have a 300-acre ranch on the South Platte River in Colorado and use trail cameras extensively. This past week, I captured on video this “tufted hen” (my term). If you would please, help me with the name of this condition, as best as you can tell from this captured enlargement from the video, and how often does this condition occur in the wild. - J. Michael Geiger, via email
This hen is indeed a rarity. You may have seen or heard of gobblers with a feather emerging from the top of their crowns, an unusual place for a feather to grow. Whether the trait is hereditary or the result of some other cause is hard to say. Such birds are often referred to as gobblers with a “top knot” or “mohawk.” While this trait is rare among gobblers, I would say it is even more uncommon among hens.
I have handled and banded more than 3,000 Eastern and Gould’s wild turkeys in live-trapping operations and examined hundreds of harvested turkeys of all subspecies. In that experience, I have never had a wild turkey with a “top knot” or “tuft” in hand. Over the years, I have seen a dozen or so photos of gobblers sporting a “mohawk” but have never before seen a photo of a hen with one! Therefore, in my experience, your photo is literally one of a kind.
Young wild turkeys are covered with down at hatching. As they mature, down is replaced by feathers in a series of molts during the first six to eight months. As the down is replaced on the head and neck, more naked skin appears. By the end of the first summer, most poults still have a line of feathers extending up the back of the neck and ending at the back of the skull. The feather line is usually heavier in young hens than jakes by the first winter. Some hens maintain that line of feathers and some feathers on the dewlap even into maturity. In the case of wild turkeys with a “mohawk,” “tuft” or “top knot,” a feather or two on top of the head continues to grow after the remainder of the exposed skin is naked. These feathers appear to lack a strong shaft so they are less brittle than other contour feathers and seem to be almost down-like.
The incidence of this characteristic among hens may be underrepresented because the bulk of the annual nationwide wild turkey harvest consists of gobblers. In other words, we tend to see more photos of gobblers than hens so “tufted” hen photos may be harder to find. I still believe we would be safe in assuming that this condition occurs in less than one individual in several thousand. It sure would be interesting to know what causes that anomaly!
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