The Ultimate Spring Turkey Challenge
By Stephen D. Carpenteri

Maine’s wild turkey population is alive and well following a relatively mild winter. The males have been strutting and gobbling for weeks in anticipation of the up-coming mating season. Even in mid-March, when there was still plenty of snow on the ground and the lakes were covered with ice, the boss toms were puffed up and pirouetting despite being ignored by the food-focused hens.

Just the other day I woke up to the local flock’s sunrise yelping and clucking over the seed pile in the back yard, along with the unmistakable sound of a dominant male establishing his position. I looked out the window and there he was, in full strut among a gaggle of disinterested hens. It was too cold and wet for successful nesting and the hens seemed to know it. They won’t tolerate any procreational acts from Mr. Big until well into May or June.

Photo caption:

A bearded hen look for early forage after a long, tough winter. (Photo by Steve Carpenteri)

I enjoy observing, hearing and hunting turkeys at any time of year, but spring is when they are most vocal and demonstrative. A mature tom will fluff up and strut to show the ladies what a mighty specimens he is, and he knows if he keeps the act up long enough the hens will begin to take notice. In between roosting, feeding, performing and fighting with the younger males, the top longbeard gets to breed as many hens as are willing, and by the first week of June the fever will have passed.

There is something interesting going on with the local flock that biologists (and maybe nuclear scientists from Japan) might find interesting. Out of a flock of 30 birds that visit my feeding station every day, three are big, dark gobblers with brightly-colored heads (white with red and blue highlights) typical of spring male turkeys throughout North America. The curious part is that, for all their strutting, gobbling and thrumming, the birds lack one crucial aspect of their breeding-season costume: Not one of them has a beard! Two- or 3-year-old birds such as these should have a prominent beard at least 8 inches long, 10 or more if they are tall birds and don’t let their beards drag in the snow and water during the day. When the beards (which are actually specialized feathers that don’t molt and have the consistency of long, thick hairs) get too much ice on them they’ll crack and break off, leaving the bird with more of a thick “brush” rather than the typical long, slender beard.

In any case, these home-flock toms are bare-breasted and look for all the world like a typical farmyard turkey: big and puffy, but no beard to be seen! The trait may have been bred out of commercially-raised birds, but so far wild turkeys still have the gene for producing the beard that so many hunters save as a trophy after the hunt. Why these three are beardless is a question good for hours of kitchen table discussion by hunters and bird watchers alike.

But that’s not all! Just the other day, while having my morning tea on the porch, the flock showed up early. I hurriedly tossed out a pound of sunflower seeds and went inside where I could observe and photograph the birds without spooking them.

As always, they came up the driveway from the north, went around the house and the old chicken coop and made their way into the back yard to the feeder that happens to be right under my kitchen window. One gobbler was puffed up and strutting while the two subordinate toms just pecked around the edge of the seed pile as if they were just two more hens looking for a free meal.

As I was clicking away at the gobbler, trying to get that one perfect facing-full-sun shot, a particular hen caught my eye. Off by herself and more cautious than the rest of the flock, I focused on her and immediately saw that she had a beard – a good one at least 5 inches long! Bearded hens are not terribly unusual. Some experts estimate that anywhere from 1 to 29 percent of the hens in a turkey population will have some sort of beard. Hunters take them all the time (legal in spring because the law allows for a “bearded turkey,” not a “bearded male turkey.”)

Seeing a bearded hen is an event in any case, but while photographing this bird another bearded hen came into view! What are the odds that there would be two bearded hens in a flock of 30 birds; in which none of the males have beards? That calculation will be left to those who need to know the exact number. All I know is that I’ve been hunting wild turkeys since 1971 (I shot my first bird in North Carolina, long before Maine’s turkey season came to be), and have never seen two bearded hens in the same flock, nor have I ever seen three toms without beards, also in the same flock.

Has something happened to “my” birds? Is this a weirdo flock that has genetic problems? Is this normal? Any time I see a flock of turkeys while driving I’ll pull over and watch them, and I have never seen so small a flock with so many abnormalities. There is no nuclear power plant near here, no big river where contaminants may be coming downstream, no airborne pollutants that we know of (acid rain, maybe?).

I’d like to think there’s an environmental reason for the strange reversal of “beardness,” but it could just as well be that through the miracle of natural selection we ended up with the goofiest flock of turkeys in Maine.

All of this suggests that this is going to be a very interesting spring hunting season. We’ll all be out there yelping, clucking and cutting for all we are worth, and the toms will answer in kind, but when they arrive inside the danger zone (shotgun range!) no beards will be seen, and it is illegal to kill a beardless bird in spring in Maine.

From all this comes a word to the wise: When you are out there calling this spring and a big, dark-colored tom comes in at full strut, gobbling at every step, look again to make certain he has a beard. Even if it looks like a gobbler, acts like a gobbler and sounds like a gobbler, it ain’t necessarily a gobbler. Be sure the bird has a beard, and then fire away!


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