Spring Turkeys

Whether you’re a follower of the “Good Book” or not, the time-honored classic contains a lot of good advice for everyday life.  One example is the phrase found in Ecclesiastes chapter three, verse one which reads, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

Anyone who finds themselves living in the country for more than a few days will discover this statement to true.  In nature, as witnessed by living close to it, there’s a right—or optimal, at least—time for every task or adventure.  A time to plant and harvest crops, or to trim trees, to dig ponds, to pick mushrooms, or to go fishing.  Likewise, spend any amount of time outdoors and you’ll realize there are seasons of the year or hours of the day when animals are more active than other times.

For instance, spring is the time to watch for wild turkeys.  “Why?” you ask.  The North American wild turkey mates in early spring.  Most of the year turkeys are elusive and tend to hang out with their own sub-groups.  Mature males (called gobblers or Toms) tend to hang with other males, while females (known as hens) can often be found keeping with other females and any young.  Immature males (called jakes) move in groups with their other immature buddies.  But for a few weeks each year—starting in about early April and running through mid-May—both males and females can be heard and seen calling, strutting, and posturing for the attention of the opposite sex.  It’s a great time to peer into a world of an animal often all but unseen the rest of the year.

The North American Wild Turkey is a close relative to the species of domestic turkey often seen picking and strutting around rural homesteads.  Oftentimes, domestic birds are white and grow quite large.  Wild turkeys are usually dark in color, covered in dark brown or black feathers that sometimes have a copper glisten in the sunlight.  The coloration works amazingly well at letting the big birds blend almost mystically into their surroundings and slip away undetected.  Anyone who spends a lot of time in the woods has likely seen anywhere from one to a half-dozen mature birds seemingly appear out of nowhere as they catch a glimpse of movement and look closer to find a small number of birds spreading out and working their way across a hillside or up an old abandoned roadway.  Also, you can be watching those birds and look away for a moment, or blink, and then look back and, if the birds have stopped to pick a bug or seed, they’ll seem to have melted into the backdrop —until they begin to walk again.

Gobblers will usually have a reddish colored neck and head.   They’ll also often have red “wattles”, dangling folds of skin that protrude from just beneath the beak and down the front of the upper neck.  In honesty, if you envisioned “magnificent” or “majestic”, well, a wild turkey probably wouldn’t come to mind.

wild turkey distribution map, spring turkeys

Depending on where you live, but especially in the eastern half of the United States, you can spot small to large flocks of wild turkeys picking bugs and seeds in fields and wooded field edges throughout the year.  Odds are what you’ll see most often will be hens with their young, or sometimes small flocks of jakes.  Human teenagers tend to hang out in groups… and the same holds true for teenager turkeys.  A lot of wild animals feed twice a day, just after sunup and just before sunset.  That’s when you’re most likely to see these groups of hens or jakes wander out of the woods and into fields.

Turkeys usually feed as they meander along, picking and stopping to look around.  While they can fly short distances, their best defense is staying alert.  Sometimes birds will find an area where the grass is sparse—often a tractor lane around a field edge—and squat down to rest their underside in the dirt and flap their wings, pitching dust up onto their backs.  The dusting helps keep down annoying bugs while also providing a cooling effect.

Okay, we’ve established that spring turkeys are unique birds to watch in the first part of the year, but not only are they more visible now, but they’re more vocal as well.  Much of the year, you might spot a few birds feeding in a field or sneaking through the woods, but you’ll rarely hear anything from them; that’s not the case in the springtime.

A couple of spring turkeys hens with their young.
A couple of hens with their young.

Turkeys have their own language.  They gobble and cluck; cutt and purr; putt and cackle; even kee-kee and whine on occasion.  While I’m not some kind of turkey whisperer, I know that centuries of observation and decades of dedicated research have revealed a little about what some of those vocalizations mean.  With spring turkeys, it’s usually all about love talk.  Here’s my best Dr. Joyce Brothers or Dr. Phil interpretation of what’s being said:

First, turkeys roost in trees at night.  When sunup comes, they awake and start looking for the first mate of the day.  A male will stretch it’s ol’ neck out and give a good hearty gobble.  The goal is to let the ladies (the hens) within hearing range know that the man of the woods is awake and ready for some action.  Ironically, an eager gobbler can be “triggered” into gobbling by the hoot of an owl, the bark of a dog, the gobbling of another male, or even the slamming of a truck door.  Turkey hunters will often use artificial calls, operated by the mouth or a rubber bellows, to help locate roosting gobblers during early morning hours.

Hens will make constant noise as they go about their daily life.  Listen close and you can hear them cluck and cackle.  Sometimes while feeding they’ll purr, kee-kee, or make a small whining noise.  When a male gobbles—which can be heard from a mile or more away—females in the neighborhood will often yelp in reply.  This is yet another kind of locator call.  As with humans, the males tend to do most of the pursuing of the opposite sex.  Willing females will yelp to let the eager man know they’re willing to “hook up”, but it’s up to him to close the gap and seal the deal.

So, the male will hear the female’s reply and often set out in her direction.  As said before, the sounds of turkeys can carry for hundreds of yards or more.  If the male hasn’t already flown down from the roost, which can create an impressive racket on its own, he’ll quickly pick out a flight path and find his way to the ground.  Likely he’ll gobble again, just to make sure he’s still connected and can hone in on his new girlfriend now that he’s firmly on terra firma.  She’ll usually reply with more yelps.  Over the next few minutes, which can seem like an eternity to the casual bystander, the gobbler (sometimes accompanied by a friend or two, or a small team of jakes eager to get in the game) will work his way toward the gentle replies of the female.

The willing spring turkey hen.
The willing hen.

This is where hunters, and even photographers, gain a strategic advantage in the spring.  The goal is to be able to sound like a love-starved female bird and be able to draw a male to within range of rifle or camera.  The same actions that make turkeys easy prey can make them entertaining to observe.

Now, this is where the real dance begins; for me, the show starts from the vantage point out the kitchen window or from the lawn chair in the backyard.  When the gobbler closes the gap of 50 yards or so he’ll sometimes begin calling more aggressively.  As the female all but ignores him completely, the big fellow will start to try getting her attention in other ways.  One tactic is to utilize an air sack in his chest to make a spitting noise by quickly expelling air in a quick burst.  Or maybe he will make a low-pitched drawn-out growl, called “drumming”.  At the same time, he’ll tense up, tuck his head and neck back into his chest, and plump up his body feathers.  He’ll fan out his tail feathers in a display that makes him look much larger and more impressive.

The big bird will strut around in half circles and back and forth, drumming and spitting in an effort to show his dominance and need for attention.  Sometimes he’ll break out of the strut and stretch his neck out and stick his head way ahead of his body and let go with a big, “Goobbbllllleeeee”.  Then he’ll return to his strut position and go back to drumming, spitting, and doing the dance.  As long as the intended female stays attentive, he’ll eventually ease his way closer until he jumps on for some action.  The whole scene can get pretty graphic for the first-time witness.

The spring turkey gobbler in full display.
The gobbler in full display.

A little earlier we talked about the looks of the gobblers versus hens.  Young males will also look different than either mature males or females.   The loose, wrinkly flesh on a male’s head and neck can range anywhere from blue in color to blood red depending on his mood and temperament at the moment.  He also has a fleshy flap of skin that protrudes above his beak called a “snood”.  When the big guy gets worked up—angry or otherwise—the snood, and other fleshy wads of skin called “caruncles”, can fill with blood and change colors.  He has a couple other characteristics that tend to identify him as a man.  Males usually grow beards from their upper chest.  Juvenile birds will have shorter beards, while old males may have as many as three going at a time.


Another way to identify a mature gobbler from a jake is the tail feathers.  A youngster will have longer tail feathers showing when he fans them out to strut, and the feathers on either side of the fan may not extend to a point parallel to the ground or beyond.  Mature males will have a full tail fan of feathers of nearly equal length—a sure sign of maturity.  One more thing: while all turkeys have three long toes extending forward and a short one facing to the rear, males will also have a fifth growth extending from the back of each leg.  These “spurs” aid if fighting, and their length, along with the length of the beard, are bragging rights for hunters who harvest wild birds for dinner.

As with most creatures, there are occasional anomalies.  Like you might find at a circus sideshow, in the turkey world, there’ll be the occasional bearded lady.  In some sub-species of the birds as many as 20 to 25 percent of females will sport beards.  And occasionally a female will make “gobble” calls, and males will “cutt” and “purr”.

Wild turkeys can range upward of 30 pounds, but in most areas of the Midwest and southern United States a 25-plus-pound gobbler is considered a great bird.  Hens will run smaller, generally, and jakes will put on mass as they mature to “gobbler” status.  All turkeys are capable of flight, but usually in short bursts.  Limiting air travel to a couple tenths of a mile at a time, at most, the awkward-looking birds can reach speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour.  Most of the time, they’ll only fly while moving from the ground to a tree limb and back for roosting at night.

Do you think you have turkeys roosting on your property but can’t get close enough to check them out?  Look beneath the tree canopy for turkey manure.  Large, long droppings that are white, brown, or black in color indicate turkeys are using the trees overnight.  If some of those droppings are shaped like the letter “J”, then you have proof you have at least one male in the crowd.

And what are those birds eating as they pick their way through the back-40 acres?  Most likely, they’re foraging for seeds, berries, insects, or worms.  They’ll also enjoy the occasional small lizard or snake.  In the woods, they often munch on acorns, hickory nuts, berries, pinyon pine nuts, and other hard mast.  Sometimes they even eat grass.  Talk about a varied diet.

The list of enemies for wild turkeys is long.  Most adult birds fall prey to coyotes, domestic dogs, foxes, or large cats (bobcats, cougars, et cetera).  Young birds and eggs are dining fodder for everything from snakes to rodents to raccoons and opossums.   From the air, they must be on guard against owls and eagles.   On the ground the list also includes skunks, groundhogs, and… humans.  Hunters account for a small percentage of life lost; the most decline comes from humans encroaching on good nesting and ranging habitat.   That doesn’t mean humans and turkeys can’t share the country life.  They’ve cohabitated for all of history, and watching birds come up into the yard to feed is great entertainment, especially this time of year.

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