Turkey Identification: Look for the beard to be sure

Contributing Editor

It happens somewhere every spring. A well-camouflaged turkey
hunter pulls a red bandanna out of his pocket and another hunter
lets fly a magnum load of No. 6s in his direction.

If the bandanna holder is lucky, he’ll just spend the rest of
the morning in a hospital emergency room with an intern digging
pellets out of his hide. If he’s not lucky, his turkey hunting
career and perhaps his life will be over.

There are several reasons why turkey hunting is one of the more
accident-prone of the field sports: Everyone out there is
camouflaged from head to toe; we’re all making sounds like the
birds we’re hunting; and we all know a gobbler’s head is red,
white, and blue.

Those same reasons should make turkey hunters extra cautious,
but not every hunter remembers all the safety rules when he’s dead
certain that’s a gobbler over by that big oak.

There is one rule, however, that would virtually ensure an
accident-free hunt, if every turkey hunter obeyed it: Don’t shoot
until you see a beard!

In spring, any male or bearded turkey is a legal target, but
some hunters don’t give enough thought to distinguishing a tom from
a jake, hen, or non-target until it’s time to shoot. You’ll have a
safer hunt if you brush up on basic turkey identification and keep
the beard rule foremost in mind.

Tom, jake, or hen?

A male turkey is larger than a hen, but the sexes can also be
differentiated by feather color, head color, leg spurs, and the
presence of a beard.

The body feathers on males, regardless of their age, have black
tips and a shiny, iridescent sheen. A hen’s body feathers have buff
tips and a dull, dusky finish. From a distance, males look big,
shiny, and black, while hens look smaller, drab, and brown.

Turkeys do not molt all their tail feathers in the first year of
life. A juvenile bird’s central tail feathers are longer than its
outer tail feathers. When a jake, or juvenile male, displays his
fan, the central tail feathers stick up an inch or two above the
rest of the fan.

A hen’s head is typically dull gray or blue in color. Males’
heads can appear bright blue, red, or white, depending on their
level of excitement. In spring, a male’s head is generally bright
red. When he’s in full strut, the top of his head turns white. When
a strutting male walks toward you, his head looks like a softball
against his fanned-out tail.

Adult males, or gobblers, also have fleshy wattles and caruncles
on their head and neck and a snood on their beak. These fill with
blood and turn bright red when the bird is excited, and the snood
hangs down several inches below the beak.

Males have spurs on the backs of their legs that grow longer and
more pointed each year. Spur length is a reliable method for aging
toms. A jake, or yearling male, has spurs less than a half-inch
long. A 2-year-old male has spurs one-half to 1-inch long. Toms
older than age 3 have spurs at least an inch long. Toms kick at
each other with their spurs when fighting.

Males also have beards, which consist of a group of coarse
bristles growing out of the skin of their breast. Jakes usually
have beards shorter than 5 inches. A 2-year-old tom’s beard is
usually at least 8 or 9 inches long. Beard length is not a good
indicator of age, as the tips of the bristles wear and break from
contact with the ground or tree limbs.

From 1 to 5 percent of hens also have beards, but these are
usually short and wispy. Bearded hens have all the other
characteristics of normal hens. A bearded hen is a legal target,
but most hunters pass them up in favor of a tom.

All turkeys cluck, yelp, and purr, but toms and jakes are the
only turkeys that will gobble. A mature tom’s gobble lasts several
seconds and has a lusty rattle. A jake’s gobble attempts are often
hesitant and comical. Jakes may yelp-gobble or break off a gobble
after two or three syllables. They sound like adolescent boys
trying out a new voice, which is just what they’re doing.

Hunt safely

Keep a mental checklist of these sex characteristics, and you
should have no trouble telling a hen from a tom or a jake. As a
bird walks into range, ask yourself: black or brown body? Red or
gray head?

When a turkey gets close enough to shoot, before you push off
the safety, look for the beard. It’s a rare tom that has lost its
beard to a fight or freezing weather. That extra second or two you
take to identify your target with absolute certainty just might
spell the difference between a successful hunt and a tragic
mistake.

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