Talk with any turkey hunter about a big bird and chances are good the conversation will veer toward discussion about the length of the beard and spurs. Both are identifying characteristics of the male turkey in each subspecies. Hunters use the length of spurs and beards as measuring sticks for age and records. The NWTF World Record Eastern gobbler, killed by Justin Lucas of Georgia, had 1.1875-inch spurs. Those are only good for 21st in the records, but the 10 beards on his bird and overall weight, along with spur length, led to the record. Spurs on birds killed by Blake Ficker (Indiana), James E. Lewis (Kentucky), William Scarbrough (Tennessee) and Bill Wynn (Iowa), also all in the NWTF records, were 2.25 inches each.
Male and female turkeys are born with little nubs on the back of their legs that are the foundations for spurs. They’re made of keratin, which grows on the legs as protective scales below the “knee” joint down to the toes. The scales don’t keep growing but the spurs do in males; some female turkeys have spurs, but it’s rare.
Why don’t all spurs keep growing until they’re long and sharp? Myriad reasons, of course. Some spurs get broken by rocks or from fighting with other turkeys. Some birds might have more food or better genetics. Some might live in areas with few rocks and sandy or softer soils, such as Osceola turkeys in southern Florida. This subspecies is known for having longer spurs.
Whatever the case, spurs are protective for turkeys and a great conversation starter for hunters. Just be careful if you’re trying to pin down a flopping gobbler so you don’t get a spur in the leg. Then you’ll have a real tale to tell your buddies!