How old is my turkey?

It’s that time again, when tom Turkeys begin to strut their stuff in the backyard.  The other day, a FB friend/fellow wildlife photographer posted a shot of a tom turkey (https://michaelqpowell.com/2020/03/22/panic-or-calm/) that looked quite a bit different than the one I have been seeing in my backyard.  I thought it looked younger, but I wondered how one can tell the age of male wild Turkey.  So, I googled that thought, and it turns out it’s not a hard thing to do (assuming you can judge lengths somewhat accurately).

The key things to look for are the length of the beard (the hair-like structures — which are modified feathers) hanging down from its breast,  the color of the tip of the beard, and the length of the spurs on the back of the lower-most part of its leg next to the foot (the tarsometatarsus to be exact).

It’s still early in a turkey’s breeding season here in MN, so this bird, although well-feathered and robust looking, has a pale head lacking in the vivid red, white, and blue colors of a bird in peak breeding condition.  That’s quite a beard this bird sports, so it’s probably an older bird, but how old?.

In contrast, the bird photographed by FB friend Mike Powell has just a nub of beard developing. Its head coloration has started to develop, but the Spring season in Virginia is much further along than here in MN.  I zoomed in on Mike’s photo and determined that the spur was a bare nub, hardly noticeable.

Here are some data that are useful to tell what age a tom turkey might be:

Beard Length = Age of Turkey
3-5 inches = 1 year
6-9 inches with amber tip = 2 years
10+ inches with black tip = 3+ years

Spur Length = Age of Turkey
1/2 inch or less = 1 year (jake)
1/2-7/8 inch and blunt = 2 years
7/8-1 inch = 2+ years
1+ inch and sharp = 3+ years
1 ¼ + = 4 years

Based on these age characteristics, how old might these two turkeys in the above photos be?

Measured against the tree trunk, the tom turkey’s beard is at least 10 inches or longer. The tip is clearly black, not amber.

I erased some of the vegetation behind the bird’s leg so the spur was more obvious. If the turkey’s tarsometatarsus is 10-12 inches in length (on average), then the spur is at least an inch and maybe more. It also looks sharply pointed.

Mr. Long-beard is clearly a mature adult, probably 3+ and maybe four years old.  The fact that a bird this old is still hanging around the backyard (and surroundings) with all the dogs, foxes, and coyotes that might injure or kill him, and has survived Minnesota’s worst weather for that many years, is a good indication that he is an excellent genetic partner.  I hope he sticks around so I can photograph him in his full breeding “beauty”, perhaps with a bevy of hens admiring him.

I would guess that the tom turkey photographed by Mike Powell is a first-year bird (jake) that probably will not breed this year, if discerning hens pay attention to things like beard length.

What age tom turkeys do you see in your backyard?

16 thoughts on “How old is my turkey?

    • Let me know what you find. I bet there are fewer, elderly(?) male turkeys like this one in the general population. But I could be totally wrong about that. Maybe once they survive the first year or two, they live to a ripe old age.

  1. Hahaha…..I read the subject line and thought you were going through your freezer!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Oh, that is funny! Now, you know that I’m such a geeky science nerd, I wouldn’t be bothered with turkey in the freezer (but I probably should be).

  2. Interesting! I looked at the photos of the tom turkeys I saw crossing the highway a few hours north of Toronto, Ontario, a couple of weeks ago. There were two: https://ebird.org/checklist/S65623709. The first one is clearly an oldtimer, I think – maybe 3+? Check that beard. His sidekick is younger, perhaps 1 year?

    • I agree, I think you pegged the ages. I’m surprised that your birds have so much breeding coloration already (in the head and neck), and red legs too! I’ve not seen that leg coloration in our birds. Thanks for the link to your photos. Very interesting.

  3. Wow. Your analysis is absolutely fascinating, Sue. I think that the only time that I have ever tried to determine the age of a bird was when I photographed an immature Bald Eagle. The implication for me is that I need to take shots of turkeys from multiple angles in order to document the diagnostically significant characteristics that help to determine their ages. Of course, with many birds I have a tough enough time determining gender, so my life may have just gotten more complicated. 🙂

    • Well, not all birds give such good indications of their age, but if longevity is any indicator of “fitness”, then it pays to advertise it. We are fortunate that some birds advertise their sex so brightly, too, as it makes it easier to spot them!

  4. Reblogged this on Mike Powell and commented:
    I am more of a liberal arts guy than a scientist, so the details of bird identification often escape me. Sue of the Back Yard Biology blog, on the other hand, is a self-avowed “geeky science nerd. She decided to do some work to find out how to tell the age of a wild turkey. I suspect that many of you will find her posting as fascinating as I did.

  5. Interesting post Sue! I’m a blog-friend of Mike’s albeit I’m in NZ. I didn’t even know that turkeys have ‘beards’ – will be looking to see if the domestic ones wandering on farms here have the same thing!

  6. Just read both your post and Mike Powell‘s post about turkeys. As always, I learn so much from you about so many subjects., Sue. Really appreciated all the illustrative close-up photos here!

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