Q. Dear Twig: Did you know that turkeys have beards?
A. Actually, I did know that. And I don't get to say that very often. Ha! Wait, not funny.
The "beard" of a turkey hangs down from the middle of the turkey's chest. It doesn't hang down from the turkey's chin. Though that would be cool if it did. It looks like a long, skinny, long-haired tail. Like the tail of a horse if the horse were as big as a miniature poodle and the tail were on the front, not the back. Scientists call the "hairs" of the beard "bristles" or "mesofiloplumes" ("MEZ-uh-FILL-uh-ploomz") — stiff, feather-like structures.
A male turkey, called a tom, starts to grow a beard at about 11 weeks old. The beard gets longer as the tom gets older. Sometimes it gets up to 12 inches long. It helps the tom attract females, or hens. A big, long beard means a big, strong tom. Or at least an older one. One that knows what it takes to survive, to not get eaten by a fox or an owl, and live to a long-bearded age. Hens dig that.
P.S. The wild turkey's scientific name: Meleagris gallopavo. Some hens have beards, too.
In the wild, in wild turkeys, most toms and some hens have beards. Also: Some toms have more than one! On farms, in farm turkeys, some toms don't have beards, some hens have them, and either way most of those beards are shorter than the beards of wild turkeys in the wild. (Wild!)
To learn just about everything you might ever want to know about turkey beards, read "The Beard of the Wild Turkey" by A.F. Schorger in the October 1957 issue of the journal The Auk. (Wing bump to the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation for the tip!)
Keen on turkeys? Want to try raising one? Try Ohio 4-H Project #166, "Raising Turkeys." Google "2009 Ohio 4-H Family Guide," then go to p. 18.
"Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick," published by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences — specifically, by the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and Ohio State University Extension, the research and outreach arms, respectively, of the College — is a weekly feature for children about science, nature, farming and the environment. It's written at, to and for a 4th-grade reading level.
For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt Knebusch, CommTech, OSU/OARDC,1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691, firstname.lastname@example.org, (330) 263-3776.
Blatant Twig Promotion:
See Twig at the 2008 Buckeye Book Fair (http://www.buckeyebookfair.com/), "Ohio's biggest literary event," 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 1, in Fisher Auditorium at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, Ohio. Free admission. He'll be there selling and signing his books: Purple and Green and Stinky in Spring (bugs, plants, water, wildlife and farming), Hairy Blenny and the Monkeyface Prickleback (freshwater life), and the all-new, not-even-out-yet Beware the Flying Steamer Duck! (birds). In all, 82 writers, illustrators and photographers will be there, with books selling at up to a 10-percent discount off the cover price and no sales tax charged. The Buckeye Book Fair brings Ohio authors together with the reading public and raises money for libraries and literacy programs.