Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Pair of Bearded Hens

There has been a bearded hen in the Blue Jay Barrens Wild Turkey flock for several years.  I’ve seen her at the feeders many times and I’ve even watched her escort a group of young poults through the yard.  Bearded hens are uncommon, but they’re regularly observed across the turkey’s range.

I’ve lately been noticing a bearded hen that displays a smaller beard than what I’ve been used to seeing.  I wondered if something had happened that caused the hen to lose part of her beard.  I stopped speculating along those lines when I looked out and saw two bearded hens side-by-side.  It’s possible that the newcomer with the sparse beard is an offspring of the older bearded hen.

Typical hens are smooth breasted and display no signs of the hairlike feathers that compose the beard of a male turkey.

Hens sporting a beard are easy to spot.  They may appear odd to us, but the bearded hens function as perfectly normal female turkeys.  The beard poses no problems for the hen, except during the turkey season when the abnormality could get the bird shot.

When I see individuals displaying abnormalities in wild populations, I’m reminded of the genetic diversity carried within a species.  This is what allows a species to survive climatic and habitat changes.  Wild Turkeys have already displayed a measure of their adaptability by surviving the destruction of the mature woodland in which they had lived for thousands of years and thriving in the fragmented landscape we have today.  If beards ever become the key to survival, these birds will be ready.


  1. Turkey habitat has probably always been fragmented. Before European colonization, Indians set fire to the woods every single year, and they cultivated large tracts of land. They did this for thousands of years, Before the Indians became common, the rapid climate fluctuations of the Ice Age combined with megafauna foraging also fragmented habitat. Turkeys evolved to be a forest edge species millions of years ago.

  2. Thanks Mark. It sounds like the turkey has been adapting to changing conditions for a long time. I don't understand what benefits would be derived from an annual burning of the woods. The only combustible material would be leaf litter and dead branches fallen from the canopy. Annual removal of the leaf litter would have a negative impact on the forest soil and could lead to severe woodland soil erosion.