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Importance of Feathering on the Head of Hens

This Turkey Tuesday is about the importance of the feathering on the head of hens. When we think of a turkey’s head, we often think about toms as their heads are colorful and attract attention. Turkeys in general lack the obvious feathering on their heads present on the rest of their bodies, and research has shown that the lack of feathering allows them to dissipate heat. But if you look closely at the head of a hen, like this agitated Gould’s hen photographed by Stephen Spurlock, you’ll notice hair-like structures. Many birds, including turkeys, have bristle feathers on their heads and they’re well developed on the heads of hens. It appears that these feathers function mostly as sensory tools, as they have sensory corpuscles at their bases – in other words, the skin from which the bristles emerge have structures that allow heightened sensitivity. While the exact way these feathers function is unclear, it is likely that their presence allows hens to detect movement around their heads, react to changes in air flow, and even more precisely identify directions of sounds. To take care of these bristle feathers, you’ll often see hens bury their heads around the bases of their tails to coat the feathers in secretions produced from the uropygial gland, and then roll their head around on their contour feathers or under their wings. The take home is, we don’t usually think of feathers when we think of a turkey’s head, but in reality specialized feathers on their heads are important to their survival and daily functions.

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