What do you know about the breeding rituals of wild turkeys?
A spring morning at daybreak is what we turkey hunters live for. The sun begins to show hints of orange and yellow in the eastern sky and seems to take an eternity to rise. The first sound that hits your ear is usually a tiny male cardinal celebrating another day in the wild spring woods. A group of barred owl begin reciting clearly the “who cooks for you” mantra back and forth and then escalate into rolling laughter, speaking in tongues with tones and pitches and volumes that only their own kind understand.
And then it happens: a mature longbeard rips off the first of several throaty gobbles high from his roosted perch in a gnarly old white oak tree. The sound of the tom’s voice echoes through the timber. He keeps it up, too, sending out dozens of prominent gobbles for the whole world to hear. He then flies down, speaks a few more times in response to your hen yelps, and goes silent. Quiet as a tomb. Try as you might, you can’t seem to get this early riser to do much else following fly down and you give up, eventually.
Conversely, there are times when simply walking through turkey country in the middle of the morning looking for a tom to work to your box call will get a response gobble. Not just any answer, either, but a true, “I hear ya, girl!” gobble. This very tom cuts off your yelps with loud and confident gobbles and seems to come running hell-bent for the end of your gun barrel, so fast you barely have time to hide in the greenbrier bushes. The whole episode here lasts three minutes, tops, from call to gun blast.
What is the difference between these two gobblers? The answer is simple: hens. The presence or absence of hens can be the difference between a gobbler that seems to go ghost on you early in the morning, but then comes running to you closer to noon. How often we lose sight of this when we are sitting up against a tree scratching our heads empty-handed, or standing over a flopping tom admiring his beard and spurs!
Understanding and remembering the essentials of the breeding behaviors of wild turkeys can be the difference between filling your gobbler tag and finishing spring with nothing to show for your efforts.
First and foremost, the most prominent of turkey breeding behavior is the gobble vocalization itself. A male turkey gobbles for one reason and one reason only: to attract as many receptive hens to his position as possible. Period. This one fact needs to be remembered foremost when hunting turkeys. We as turkey hunters try to attract gobblers to our position with replicated hen vocals.
This is 180 degrees opposite from how real birds breed.
The male gobble vocalization can be seen as the tom’s way of reaching out across large expanses of his home range through the physics of sound waves and frequencies. It is a gobbler’s way of sending amorous emails and text messages to his would-be girlfriends! He may not be able to see them, but he hopes the hens will respond and come to him. To put this in the context of a hunting situation, toms seem to be more vocal on the roost than at any other time of day. It has been suggested in turkey research that the turkey does this to help broadcast his vocalizations over a larger distance at the “quietest” time of day. When a gobbler is high above the forest floor in the tree canopy, he is able to reach out and dial long distance when the ambient noise from other birds and wind and road traffic is at their minimum during the day.
So what makes a gobbler more likely to vocalize? The truth is, we don’t really know. This topic seems to be founded less in scientific fact and more in hunter observations, tall tales, broad generalities, and the like. Weather is thought to have an impact. When pleasant conditions prevail, the more the longbeards seem to talk and the more inclement the weather, the more tight-lipped toms can be.
Time of breeding season also seems to impact gobbling frequency. There is a popular theory in modern turkey hunting literature and lore that there seem to be two “gobbling peaks” during the spring. The first peak correlates to the attraction and breeding of hens that are just starting to become receptive. The second peak seems to occur well after most hens in a given home range are away from other birds and nesting while the gobblers are still looking to satisfy their urge to breed.
I sometimes feel like hunting pressure can alter a gobbler’s willingness to sound off, but again, this is from simple observations on my part and is not founded in science.
Nevertheless, of all the theories that try to explain why gobbling occurs with increased frequency, the lack of gobbling can point to a very logical cause: hens. The presence of hens around a tom seems to stifle his gobbling. The tom doesn’t need to vocalize and spend energy hollering all over the countryside when his hens are nearby! The courtship game is now a quieter, close-range affair.
Every turkey hunter worth his or her salt loves to watch a longbeard with his hens strutting in a wide open field or a clear oak ridge in the timber. But how often do we give it conscious thought as to what this behavior actually means? This gobbler has his fan spread as wide as he can as he takes three or four short, choppy steps and pirouettes for his hens. He drags his primary wing feathers and seems to puff up every single body feather he has, allowing them to reflect their iridescence in the spring sun. He sticks his chest out to show his beard off a bit and uses that close range “chit-vooooom” vocalization of the spit drum.
This intricate and fascinating process is designed for one thing and one thing only: to convince hens to mate with the strutting gobbler. The more he shows off, the more hens the tom thinks he will attract. And dominant toms want to breed with as many hens as they can during this springtime ritual. Monogamy is not in a turkey’s vocabulary! Strutting toms seem to gobble somewhat, but usually nothing like they did on the roost. They will sometimes gobble when nearby hens yelp and cut or when a crow overhead sounds off, inducing a shock response. In the close range of willing hens, the truth is the gobbler doesn’t have to gobble much any more. His long range roost talk heard at daybreak is replaced by his close proximity game of strutting, spitting and drumming. And if all goes his way, breeding.
Once a hen accepts a gobbler’s advances, she will lay down on her ventrum and expose her dorsal aspect to the gobbler. The tom will climb onto the hen’s back as she lifts her tail up exposing her vent and copulation takes place. After a hen has been bred, she can store the gobbler’s sperm in her oviduct and use it to fertilize her clutch eggs which she lays one at a time over the time period of a week or two while she begins her reclusive and antisocial nesting behavior. When the hen’s clutch is complete, she will incubate her eggs almost nonstop until hatching, a process which usually takes 26 to 28 days.
What does this mean for the longbeards we all desire to see in front of our gun muzzle? The answer lies in the simplicity of the law of supply and demand. The demand of gobblers for receptive hens is high, but the supply is low now that hens are sitting on their nests and unresponsive to gobbler advances. This process seems to account for that second peak in gobbling as mentioned before. It is during this time that I find tom turkeys exceptionally vulnerable. There are days late in our Illinois season that seem like one could call in a tom with the screech of fingernails on a chalk board. These late season longbeards are hard up for hens and will sometimes run to the hunter’s hen calling seemingly out of pure desperation to mate one last hen before spring turns to summer.
Next time when you are chasing turkeys afield and your brain is trying to sort through what your ears are hearing or your eyes are seeing out of your quarry, remember what you are being shown from these birds. Though some science in the matter can be intricate and detailed, and there can be exceptions to nearly every turkey rule, one constant remains: the urge for the male turkey to breed is the driving force behind most of his actions and vocalizations.
When this fact is kept foremost in your thinking while chasing turkeys, it can prove invaluable in helping to punch more spring longbeard tags.
Clint McCoy is a resident of Palestine, IL where he lives with his wife Colleen and stepson Troy on his family farm. Dr. McCoy is a 2005 graduate of the the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine with bachelors degrees in Animal Science and Veterinary Science and a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. His passions are hunting and filming both whitetail deer and wild turkeys with special interest in archery. Clint can be found on Facebook and on Instagram at @mccoy_clint.