2017-10-11 / Columns

IN THE WILD

The Uropygial Gland
by Dan Stiles
Wildlife Biologist

During World War II, both my parents were school teachers, and after school and on weekends they raised and sold chickens and their eggs. At one point we had one thousand Rhode Island Reds. We sold eggs by the case, my father’s job, but my poor mother had to eviscerate hundreds of freshly killed chickens in our kitchen sink. She was a teacher, and she taught me about all the internal parts retrieved by hand, including the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, crop, gizzard and intestines. Who knows, maybe her interest in internal parts steered me into becoming a biologist.

And, every chicken, male or female, had what she called an oil gland at the base of its tail. It secreted a yellow, oily substance the chickens poked their beaks into frequently, just prior to preening their feathers. We assumed it made their feathers waterproof. The correct name these days for the oil gland is the uropygial gland. Almost all birds have one, including wild turkeys.

Around our cabin in Morgan County, we have a super abundance of wild turkeys. Hen turkeys right now are traveling about in flocks of 10 to maybe 25. Later on, in the fall and winter, flocks of many dozens are not unusual. Males, the gobblers, travel about in much smaller groups, but the males and females don’t ever seem to mix, until spring. Usually I see flocks of females parading over the open fields surrounding our cabin early in the morning when the warm sunshine is causing the ground fog to dissipate.

I perhaps should drill holes in the four sides of our cabin, big enough to accommodate my camera’s lens. But as things are now, I have to watch and photograph turkeys through the not-perfectly-clean window glass and the fine mesh screen. So, the quality of the photos taken from inside our cabin are never prize winners.

And so, here is a quiz on what all the previous text leads up to. What do you see in the not too great accompanying photograph, stretched out in the field by our cabin? The answer is, of course, three wild turkeys lying down with their wings extended, enjoying the sun. They are also making full use of their uropygial gland, preening mostly their outstretched wing and back feathers.

I doubt that most people have ever witnessed such a sight. I know for sure I never did. Perhaps a small trial round hole beside one window for my camera’s lens would not be such a bad idea after all, but just one.

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