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What colors are male turkey feathers?

Male turkeys, also known as toms or gobblers, are known for their striking plumage. The feathers of a male turkey can come in a dazzling array of colors and patterns, which play an important role in attracting females during mating season. In this article, we’ll take a close look at the various colors and markings that make up the feathers of a male wild turkey.

Basic Feather Colors

The feathers of male turkeys are generally colored in shades of brown, black, white, red, green, copper, and bronze. Here are some of the most common feather colors seen:

Chestnut brown This rich, reddish-brown color is found on body feathers like the breast, back, and wings.
Iridescent black Glossy, iridescent black feathers occur on the main tail feathers.
Iridescent green Shimmering green can be seen on the lesser wing coverts.
Rusty red Feathers around the neck and head often show bright rusty red hues.
Bronze Metallic bronze luster occurs on breast and body feathers.
White Small amounts of white are interspersed throughout the plumage.

The interplay between these colors results in the overall bronze, coppery, reddish-brown, and black feathering that male turkeys are known for. But looking closer, we can see even more intricate patterns and markings overlaid on these colors.

Specialized Feather Markings

Male turkeys have certain feathers that are specially colored and patterned for display purposes. These include:

Breast Spots Circular spots in shades of red, bronze, copper, purple, green, and gold speckle the breast feathers.
Rounded Tail Feathers The main tail feathers have a series of concentric bands of chestnut brown, black, tan, and rusty red.
“Beard” Long, hair-like, black modified feathers hang down from the chest.
Leg Spurs Pointed, horny growths on the legs are yellowish-white to gray.
Snood Bright red flap of skin on the forehead hangs down over the beak.
Wattles Fleshy growths under the beak are red, white or blue.

These specialized feathers and other characteristics are what give male turkeys their unique ornamental appearance. The vibrant colors and patterns serve to attract female turkeys during courtship displays. Let’s look in more detail at some of these remarkable feathers.

Tail Feathers

The most distinctive feathers of the male turkey are the tail feathers, also known as the fan or spread. The adult male has between 18-22 tail feathers that can span up to 60 inches when fully fanned out. The feathers are incredibly lightweight, with slender quills and dense afterfeathers that create an intricate circular pattern.

Each feather is decorated with concentric bands of color:

– The center is chestnut brown
– Surrounding this is a thin band of black
– Next is a band of tan or fawn color
– The outer edge is tipped with a band of rusty-red or copper

When fanned out, these alternating bands create stunning iridescent rings of color. The number of bands may indicate the age of the turkey, with older males having more bands built up over time. These specialized tail feathers allow males to put on dazzling courtship displays.

Wing Feathers

Male turkeys also have strikingly patterned flight feathers on their wings. The primary and secondary wing feathers are generally chestnut brown, while the wing coverts feature brilliant metallic and iridescent colors.

Some distinctive wing feathers include:

– Lesser wing coverts: Iridescent green and copper
– Middle wing coverts: Rusty-red bands and white-tipped bars
– Greater wing coverts: Broad metallic green and bronze bars

When the male turkey fans out his wings, these colorful wing feathers coordinate with the tail feathers to create a spectacular display for female turkeys. The contrast makes the colors seem even richer and more vibrant.

Breast Feathers

The breast feathers are also brightly colored in male turkeys. The background color is usually a rich coppery-bronze, overlaid with distinct markings:

– Circles or ovals in shades of purple, red, bronze, copper, green and gold
– Black crescents around the edges of the spots
– Iridescent rainbow-like bands spanning horizontally across the feathers

These iridescent breast feathers shine and shift color in different lights. When strutting during courtship, males will puff up their breast feathers to better show off this ornamentation to females.


Perhaps the most unusual feathers of the male turkey are the “beard” feathers. These are actually not true feathers, but rather specialized bristles that protrude 7-10 inches from the center of the chest.

The beard consists of black, hair-like, modified feathers with a thick central quill and fine barbs at the ends. Typically only around 100-200 beard feathers develop. They are unique to male turkeys and start growing after about 6 months of age.

The beard serves as a displays during courtship and mate competition between males. Longer beards are thought to indicate greater fitness and maturity.

Snood and Wattles

In addition to specialized feathers, male turkeys have fleshy appendages on their head and throat that change color during courtship displays:

– Snood: A flap of red skin that hangs down over the beak. It can elongate, dangle, and change from red to blue as males get excited.

– Wattles: Paired growths under the chin that elongate and change from red to white during courtship.

By altering blood flow and air sacs, males can dynamically change the color and size of these head appendages as a visual signal to hens during breeding season.

What Causes the Colorful Feathers?

What makes male turkeys have such vibrant colored feathers compared to females? There are two key factors:

1. Diet

Male turkeys eat a diet rich in carotenoids as they enter the breeding season. Carotenoids are pigments produced by plants that create yellow, orange, and red colors. By ingesting carotenoids, male turkeys can grow colorful new feathers each year before breeding. Common carotenoids turkeys eat include lutein and zeaxanthin.

2. Structural Colors

Specialized feather structure also plays a key role. The feathers have microscopic prism-like cells that diffract light. This splits light into different visible wavelengths, creating shimmering iridescent greens, purples, bronzes and other hues. The banding patterns, bars, and spots all amplify these structural colors.

So in summary, it’s the combination of pigments (carotenoids) and microscopic structural properties of the feathers that allow male turkeys grow such dazzling plumage. Females lack these specialized diet and feather adaptations.

Regional Variations

Across different subspecies and geographical regions, there can be some variation in the precise colors and patterns of male turkeys. Here are a few examples:

Eastern Wild Turkey – Broad metallic green bars on wings
– Reddish-bronze body
Osceola Turkey – Very dark feathers, nearly black
– Iridescent green less prominent
Rio Grande Turkey – Richer copper colors
– More white barring on wings
Merriam’s Turkey – Extensive white tips on tail and wing feathers
– Darker pinfeathers
Gould’s Turkey – More purple, blue and green iridescence
– Distinct white banding on tail

These variations show regional adaptations, but the overall theme of vibrant metallic and iridescent feathers remains constant across wild turkey subspecies.

Changes with Age

Younger male turkeys don’t yet have the full spectacular plumage of adults. The colors progress and intensify as the birds mature:

– **Poults** hatch with camouflage patterns of brown, tan and black.

– **Juveniles** around 9-10 weeks old start to show a dark fan of tail feathers and the beginnings of the breast spot patterns.

– By **5-6 months** the green, bronze and reddish colors become more pronounced.

– Nearing **1 year old**, the adult feather patterning and long beard are apparent.

– In the **second year**, the full brilliant plumage develops in time for breeding season.

So while male turkey poults may look similar to females, their dazzling feathers develop progressively as they mature, culminating in the spectacular courting colors.


The plumage of male turkeys is nothing short of stunning. While females are camouflaged in subdued browns, males sport vibrant metallic greens, shimmering bronzes, lustrous coppers, and iridescent reds. Specialized tail feathers, wing feathers, and breast spots create patterns designed to attract females during elaborate mating displays. Dietary carotenoids and structural properties of feathers produce this resplendent effect. While some variations exist between subspecies, the overall theme of showy feathers remains constant. So next time you see a male turkey fanning his plumes, take a moment to admire the iridescent beauty of his feathers.