Wild turkeys start to mate as spring begins. Some groups gather in the middle of the street. The males drag their wings on the ground in a bid to breed. Their faces and neck colors change into blue and red.
Chickens and their relatives used to be rare and elusive in America. There are wild turkeys in the neighborhoods around my house.
I started photographing them a few years ago because they fascinated me so much, and I have learned that there is more going on than meets the eye.
There are turkeys of a feather in this picture. Men can form flocks with their brothers. Dr. Alan Krakauer studied this as a graduate student at the University of Berkeley. The toms in the flock were either full or half-siblings. The bands of brothers cooperated to court females.
Only the dominant male had children. Dr. Krakauer described the brothers as "wingmen," "bodyguards," or "backup dancers" He thinks they have a support role.
The arrangement was beneficial to wingmen despite the potential for lifelong celibacy. The average number of offspring produced by dominant males with wingmen was seven a year. The seven offspring had more of the wingmen's genes than if they'd sired a single chick themselves.
They are helping their brother get a lot more females than either of them would. People were surprised by that at the time.
People who have a brother know the vicissitudes of the relationship. During the mating season, brothers generally cooperate, but at other times, they fight for rank. Turkeys have big bodies, powerful wings and spurred feet. When a boxer is hit by a knockout punch, the spittle flies.
While males are aggressive with each other, they don't force copulations, even though they are twice the size of their partners. Females ultimately choose their mates while males are left with abandon. Men with long snoods are what they want in a partner.
There are protuberances over a turkey's beak. Changes in the organ's length and color can be caused by the animals relaxing their muscles and blood vessels. Although, to their credit, the hens manage to be coy about it, a tom with a long red snood draws their attention.
A professor at the University of Mississippi has studied wild turkeys for decades. He looked at the roles of snoods, caruncles, skull caps, spurs and beards. He found that snood length was the most important factor when it came to choosing a mate. A few extra millimetres made a difference.
Since the snood doesn't seem to be a very functional thing to choose, I was surprised. There are other ornaments on males, but the snood is the only one.
There is a phenomenon with deep roots in biology called fancy accretions. A man who can afford to wear a snood for turkeys must have had a lot of money. Males with longer snoods have less coccidia parasites, which don't harm adults but can sicken or kill chick, and possess genes that may make them resistant to coccidia.
If females choose long-snooded males, their babies may be able to fight off parasites.
The role some other male ornaments play is unknown. Turkeys have structures on their face and neck that can change colors. The males will take the blood from the caruncles and make them white. He doesn't know what the change in the caruncles means or why it's important.
What about those feathers? The doctor didn't know if females cared. The feathers of turkeys with coccidia reflect less light than those without it. No one has studied the way females look at birds.
There is still a lot of information to be learned. It is a shame that we don't know more about the bird's behavior because it has a cultural connection to the American Thanksgiving.
It is possible that that is not completely surprising. In places like New England, Madison and Berkeley, wild turkeys are so common that they get as much notice as a traffic cone.
That wasn't the case in the past. In the United States, wild turkeys were rare until recently.