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Beards & What Function They Serve

This Turkey Tuesday is about beards and what functions they serve. The reality is, we really don’t know precisely what purpose beards serve, although us turkey hunters are certainly obsessed with beard length and thickness! We do know that beards are specialized feathers that resemble hair, but interestingly beards are not molted and replaced – instead they grow continuously. Perhaps beards are involved in attracting hens and courtship – when toms strut they do showcase their beards – so maybe hens obtain cues about a tom’s health from the beards. And maybe in some ways beards help to signal dominance or a tom’s status relative to other toms, with a longer and thicker beard being “better” than the reverse. The late Lovett Williams had an interesting belief as to the potential function of beards that he wrote about many years ago. That is, that beards play a role in foreplay prior to copulation. Lovett postulated that when a tom mounts a hen and treads on her back, perhaps the beard touching her feathers does so in a way that acts to synchronize the tom and hen during the act of copulation – and if so, maybe beards have evolved at least partially to improve fertilization and synchrony in the breeding process. Regardless, it’s interesting to ponder the various functions that beards may provide. The take home is beards may always be something we lack a clear understanding of relative to their purpose, but all turkey hunters clearly understand that taking a tom with an exceptional beard is a cause for celebration!

Pic by Matt Addington.

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