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Wild Turkeys and Molting

This Turkey Tuesday is about molting, the process where wild turkeys replace their feathers. Turkeys molt all of their feathers each year, and molting is most pronounced during summer. The result is, you’ll see birds now that have feathers out of place as they’re losing and replacing them, like the tom in this picture by Joe Foster. When molting, the feathers are often lost in pairs (termed bilateral symmetry) – for instance, a primary feather on one wing is lost and replaced at the same time as that same feather on the other wing. Interestingly, turkeys molt after breeding when reproductive activities are complete. So, jakes will molt first, followed by hens that do not nest or do not hatch a nest, and many toms will start molting at that same time as their breeding activities wane when spring turns to summer. However, successful hens with broods and hens that renest will molt last, because nesting activity delayed their ability to molt. Why? Nesting hens are already energetically stressed, as they eat less during incubation and lose weight during the month it takes to hatch a nest. So, delaying molt allows them to put all of their energy into incubation, and once that energetic demand ends, they are mobile and can obtain the energy to support molting. In fact, hens that have broods and nest later into the summer appear to molt faster than other birds, which allows them to “catch up” and replace all of their feathers before winter just like the rest of the population. The take home is, replacing plumage is an important part of the annual cycle for turkeys, ensuring that they’re able to withstand winter and enter spring “wearing their best suit”.

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