Perhaps the most recognizable of game birds is the wild turkey. He is nicknamed the gobbler, and with good reason. Part of the appeal of the Tom turkey is his personality. It’s not often that you could use a work like personality with an entire breed of bird. The male wild turkey, however, is one example. He is brash and vain.
During mating season, he is admirably randy. It’s hard not to admire the bird as he goes about the business of being seen and heard by as many hens as possible. He seems not to have a care in the world, save mating. He is like the red-blooded American male of a foregone era. Like a folk hero, you almost can’t help but root for the guy. The wild turkey hunt has become synonymous with the spring in much of America.
This bird can be found in every state of the union, save Alaska. Yes, that means you can find this strutter in Hawaii as well. It is the largest game bird in all of North America. Males appear similar to females to the untrained eye. If you cannot tell which you are watching, wait for the strutting and calling to verify it’s a male. He is called a tom, or a gobbler. He can weigh up to thirty pounds and stand as high as four feet tall. The body of the tom is blackish brown featuring an iridescent metallic sheen. He is nearly bald on the head and neck, which can be plain white, red, or blue. The tom has carbuncles, which droop from the front and sides of his neck. These fleshy bumps are bright red in color.
The gobbler also sports a fleshy dewlap hanging from his throat and neck. The bizarre decorations do not end there. Something called a snood hangs over the front of his beak. This is a strange, fingerlike protrusion.
The snood can constrict and vertically project itself like a fleshy bump on his beak when he is alert. There is very little about a gobbler that could be considered subtle. The tom’s breast contains a beard made up of coarse hair-like fibers. Mature toms beards may be as long as eight inches. Occasionally, female wild turkeys have beards as well. The female beards are noticeably shorter, but could still cause a hunter to confuse her with a young male, or jake. Tom’s also have spurs on their lower legs.
These appendages are around one inch long. The size and shape of spurs make it easier to tell toms and jakes apart. The younger males have smaller rounded spurs. Their elder male’s spurs are long and pointed. The nickname gobbler is well earned in the spring when the male wild turkey begins his breeding displays. He makes one of the most recognizable sounds in the animal kingdom. He gobbles surprisingly loudly for a bird and is as animated as possible. Once his calls have drawn hens, he fans his tail, fluffs his feathers, drags his wingtips, and struts with great gusto. In response, hens will purr, yelp, and cluck. Once hens have responded, the tom will follow them to their feeding ground, and mate with several of them every morning.
Hunting the tom turkey is almost always done using calls. With practice and the right device, a hunter can produce several calls to attract the bird or startle him into revealing his position. If a tom hears another tom calling, he often cannot help but investigate why no hen is responding. Perhaps he thinks he is a better specimen than the one he hears, and can earn the hen himself. Finding the turkey habitat is relatively easy, since the birds will stay in the same sights for years. They will use the same “strutting grounds” day after day as well. These spots are open areas where his displays can be seen by hens. If finding the turkey and calling him are relatively easy, where is the challenge?
This bird is an excellent runner, moving as fast as twelve miles an hour.
When threatened, he will run first. In an emergency, toms will launch themselves into the air and accelerate to a flying speed of over thirty miles per hour within a few seconds. He can only fly for a few hundred yards, but will continue to glide for up to another mile under the right circumstances. Truly effective wild turkeys will employ several decoys in addition to calling their prey. Older toms may be leery of calls alone, and wait to spot a hen before revealing his position. It’s also recommended to team hunt these birds, herding them into a shooter’s line of fire.