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Monday Morning Mystery 07042022

Smoke-phase Turkey in Quebec?

IMG_0809Mary-Pat Hebert writes:

   Hello Jim.
   I live in the Laurentians, north of Montreal, Canada. An American friend sent me an article written by you re: a smoke-phase turkey seen by your friend, Ken Wiegand at his feeder.
   I am sending you a picture of this turkey seen yesterday at our feeder. I have never seen one so pale. My husband thinks it is a   Tom and I think it is a hen. Can you help us out here?
   Do you think it is a smoke-phase turkey?  The recessive gene is very interesting.
   I think we can agree that it is a smoke-phase. Do you think it is a male or female?
   The original column is here:
By Jim Wright
Special to The Record

    My friend Ken Wiegand was in for a surprise when he got home last week. He noticed turkey tracks in the snow, and when he looked out the window, he saw the strangest  -- and most beautiful -- wild turkey at the bird feeder on his deck. 

   Instead of the typical dark-brown feathers you’d expect to see, this female had striking pale gray feathers with blackish tips. The bird proceeded to fly onto Ken’s roof, walk down the other side, and jump to the ground. When the bird visited the feeder again a bit later before disappearing for good, Ken managed to get a few photos.  

    (I later heard that a smoke-phased turkey was seen at McFaul Wildlife Center in Wyckoff in recent weeks, so perhaps the same bird gets around.)

    Ken, who lives up the road a piece near the Allendale-Ramsey border, found some information on-line that indicated the bird was something called a “smoke-phase” wild turkey. But he was still full of questions: Do turkeys change color in winter? Could it be a hybrid of a wild turkey and domestic white turkey?

   For answers, I turned to eastern wild turkey expert Tony McBride, who is the supervising biologist for the NJDEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

   First of all, McBride explained, the bird was not a hybrid of two different types of turkeys.  The unusual plumage, also known as a “smokey phase” or “smokey gray phase,” was caused by a recessive gene. 

  “If two eastern wild turkey that have normal coloration also both have that recessive gene, some of their offspring may have the smokey form -- like albinism,” he said.

     Although the bird that Ken saw looked nicely camouflaged against that recent snowfall, McBride said the bird’s feathers did not change color in winter. 

    “They’re quite handsome up-close,” he adds. “They do have little bit of brown, a little bit of grayish color, and you can see the shadow of all the typical turkey coloration.”

    They’re also very rare. “We’ll get reports of them maybe once or twice a year,” McBride says. “We really can’t measure how common they are because they’re seen so rarely, but they’re definitely much less than one percent of our wild turkey population, which is between 20,000 and 25,000.” 

     Other cool facts: Like the one in Ken’s yard, these rare turkeys are usually females. And because 10 to 15 percent of wild turkey females have another recessive trait that causes them to to have a beard (a small cluster of slender, fibrous feathers in the center of their breast), “It just goes to follow that sometimes smokey-phase females will sometimes have a beard as well,” McBride says.

    I’ve heard of all-white examples of other birds over the years, but never a smokey phase.  For example, an all-white catbird hung out at a local natural area for a few weeks in the fall of 2013, and I hear of an all-white robin now and then.

   But the niftiest bird over the past decade just might be an all-white red-tailed hawk that birder Steven Albert has seen has been several times near Rutgers’ Piscataway campus. He even recently got photos of this feathered contradiction -- a hawk that resembles a dove.

The Bird-watcher column appears every other Thursday. Email Jim at celeryfarm@gmail.com.