Ms. Bearded Wonder

Paul Rouse of Bryan’s Road, Maryland, harvested a bearded hen (pictured, right) with a 7 1⁄2-inch beard and asked how rare they are. Dr. Tom gives us the statistics behind bearded hens and a few notes on their ability to reproduce.

Wild turkey beards emerge from a point on the skin of the upper breast called a papilla. Almost all gobblers have at least one papilla and are capable of growing beards. The average incidence rate of hen turkeys with beards 10%. Hens with beards occur in all five subspecies of wild turkey. Bearded hens tend to be more common in the Merriam’s subspecies (19%) and quite rare among Osceola hens (less than 1%).

A closer look at banding records for 1,515 Eastern wild turkey hens revealed that 133 hens (8.7%) had beards. Among the 903 adult hens within that sample of banded hens, 126, or 13.95%, were bearded; however, of the 612 juvenile hens only 7 (1.14%) sported beards. There are two reasons for that difference. First, biologists handling wild turkeys seldom check hens for beards unless the beard is visible. Hen beards grow more slowly and are generally thinner (fewer bristles) than gobbler beards. Therefore, beards are less likely found on juvenile hens if captured in their first winter.

The incident rate of bearded hens may increase as hen turkeys age, but there is no research indicating that the rate changes. More likely, the percentage of hens capable of growing a beard is constant, but young hens simply don’t have long enough beards to be noticed.

Most adult bearded hens have beards that are 6 to 8 inches in length. The longest hen beard I have seen was a shade over 9 inches but was quite thin. Bearded hens are capable of laying eggs and raising broods. No research has shown that they are more likely to produce bearded offspring than “clean-shaven” hens.

Bearded Hens: By the Numbers

8.7% Percentage of bearded hens*

3.9% Percentage of adult bearded hens*

1.1% Percentage of juvenile bearded hens*

19% Percentage of Merriam’s hens with beards

<1% Percentage of Osceola hens with beards

6 to 8 Average length in inches of beards found on hens

*Figures used are from banding records of 1,515 Eastern wild turkey hens

Bob Erikson

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