When spring comes, wild turkeys begin their mating game. Groups gather in the grass and fields and sometimes in the middle of the street. Males fluff their iridescent feathers, fan their tails, and drag their wings on the ground as they compete for breeding rights. Their faces and necks take on dazzling shades of blue and red.
Once rare and elusive inhabitants of America’s woodlands, these heaviest galliform birds (chickens and their relatives) have made their way to the city. Wild turkeys live in residential areas around my house in Madison, Wis.
A few years ago, I was so fascinated by elaborate courtship displays that I started photographing them – and as I learned, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Outside the breeding season, male wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are much more boring and often sniffle back.
For starters, fluffy turkeys are huddled together. Males, known as Toms, can form lifelong herds with their brothers. A biologist and photographer friend, Dr. Alan Krakauer studied this as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. He discovered that toms in a herd are everywhere from full sibling to half sibling. These gangs of brothers cooperated to court females or chickens and chase rival males.
Remarkably, however, only the dominant male mates and gives birth to offspring. The brothers below, Dr. They served as “team,” “bodyguard,” or “backup dancer,” to use Krakauer’s colorful definitions. “They have what I think of as a support role,” he said.
Dr. Krakauer found that, despite the potential for lifelong celibacy, wingmen benefited from this arrangement – at least according to the crude evolutionary account. On average, dominant males with wingmen produced seven broods per season, while lone males produced less than one. Because the males were closely related, these seven pups contained more of their wingmen’s genes than if they had given birth to a single chick.
Dr. “They help their siblings get a lot more teeth than either would get on their own, so this collaboration has been particularly helpful,” explained Dr. Krakauer. Krakauer. “It seemed surprising to people at the time.”
Anyone who has a sibling knows the ups and downs of fraternal relationships. Siblings often cooperate during the mating season, while at other times intense conflict arises as they scuffle for rank. Turkeys have formidable weapons: large bodies, powerful wings and spurred feet. I once saw a fight so fierce that spit flew—like when a boxer was hit with a knockout punch.
Although males are aggressive towards each other, they are not aggressive towards females and do not force them to mate even though they are twice the size of their mates. Therefore, although males may become stricken by abandoning them, females eventually choose their mates. They are picky about partners and know what they want: men with long snoods.
Snoods are finger-like fleshy protrusions that run over a turkey’s beak. Animals can contract and relax the muscles and blood vessels in their heads and necks, causing changes in the length and color of the organ. A tom wearing a long red snood catches the attention of chickens like flies to honey – however, to their credit, chickens manage to be coy about it.
A professor at the University of Mississippi, Dr. Richard Buchholz has spent his career studying wild turkeys. Snoods studied the role of various male ornaments, including caruncles (pebble-like bumps on the head and neck), skullcaps (thickened skin on the top of the head), spurs (claws on the legs), and beards (hair-like tufts of hair). protrusion from the thorax) — play in the selection of a female mate. He found that the primary factor in explaining which male a female chooses as a mate was nose length. Even the extra few millimeters made a difference.
Dr. “The choice of snood in particular surprised me as it didn’t seem like a very functional thing,” Buchholz said. “Why snood on men and not all the other ornaments?”
The answer lies in a phenomenon with deep roots in biology: Fancy enhancements may indicate good genes. For turkeys, a male who can afford to sport a lethal snood should have plenty of resources, apparently reflecting the quality of his DNA. Dr. Buchholz found that males with longer snoods had fewer coccidia parasites, which do not harm adults but have genes that can sicken or kill chicks and make them resistant to coccidia.
Dr. “It probably had a huge impact on the survival of the chicks in the beginning,” Buchholz said, so females can choose males that giggle longer, giving their babies life-saving parasite resistance.
Dr. Buchholz is still unsure about the role some other men’s jewelry plays. Like snoods, other fleshy structures on a turkey’s face and neck can also change color during display. Dr. Buchholz said, for example, that men would shed all the blood from their meat cuts so they would be as white as a piece of paper. Not sure what the change in caruncles might indicate or why this is important.
What about those fancy feathers? “I don’t know if women care,” said Dr. buchholz The plumage of male turkeys infected with coccidia reflects less ultraviolet light that turkeys (not us humans) can see. However, no one has studied whether females taunt with dull plumage as they do in undersized snoods.
There is much more to learn about the mating behavior of the wild turkey. Dr. “For a bird that has such a great conservation success story, is so common and interesting to humans, and has a cultural connection to American Thanksgiving, it’s really embarrassing that we don’t know more about its behavior,” Buchholz said. .
Perhaps this is not entirely surprising. Wild turkey populations are now booming in many parts of the country thanks to conservation efforts; They’re now so common in places like New England, Madison, and Berkeley that they draw as much attention from passers-by as a traffic cone.
But this was not always the case. Until recently, wild turkeys were rare in the United States – “which seems crazy now,” said Dr. “Because they’re right in town and they’re blocking traffic,” Krakauer said.
Anne Readel is a photographer, writer, biologist, and lawyer. You can follow their work instagram .
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