Saturday, June 1, 2024

    The Phases of Spring Turkey Season: Understanding the Biology

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    As our spring turkey season continues in Michigan I have noticed a trend. During the last week of April and the first week of March, hunters have been discussing the fact that the toms are being very quiet and seemingly nowhere to be found. My own hunting has validated this as well. As soon as April 23rd hit, the gobbling stopped. My initial impression was it had to be the weather. We have had a string of very cold Michigan spring days—including some hail. Looking deeper into the biology of the wild turkey it appears the answer may be much more complex.

    It appears that turkeys have similar phases to whitetail deer. We have been in the turkey rut the past few weeks and recently the ‘lockdown’ phase has begun. Let me explain. Turkeys go through several distinct stages:

    1. During winter, according to the Michigan DNR, turkeys tend to separate into three main groups. Adult toms, young jakes (young males), and hens. As spring arrives, these temporary flocks break up and the adult toms begin trying to attract a harem of hens. Almost every hen will breed with a tom during the spring. In Michigan this period is the beginning of April when the toms and hens are very vocal and chasing one another, exhibiting rut like activity (reminiscent of deer). The toms may fight each other for territory as they try to stake their claim to their hens. Once this pecking order is settled the breeding begins.
    2. Breeding (aka lockdown): During this phase, according to Game and Fish Magazine, “Toms stay close to the hens all day and roost in close proximity at night. Such henned-up toms are difficult, if not impossible, to call.” This is the period we are in currently in Michigan. Sometimes the toms or jakes will answer your call, but they are unlikely to come strutting over to you. They are expecting the hens to come to them (male turkeys have it easy—the hens do all the work). This period is marked by frustrated hunters and quiet birds. However, hope lies ahead…
    3. Nesting: Hatchlings are typically born in Michigan in the early weeks of June. The hens nest and incubate the eggs for about 28 days. Extrapolating this, we see that nesting begins somewhere between the first and second week of May on average. At this point, the hens are busy with their nests and have no use for the toms anymore. The toms though, are still in the mood to breed. This can be the period when they may go walking toward the sound of that new hen they haven’t met yet. Gobbling may increase and a hunter’s chances can once again improve for bagging a tom.

    The allure of turkey hunting is that it seems like it should be an easy proposition. Go out and kill a bird. How hard can it be? As the season progresses, hunters quickly realize that this is no simple feat. These birds are programmed with innate reflexes and defense mechanisms that make them extremely cautious and difficult to get close to. Understanding their biology can help shift things in your favor and help you stay positive when they stop responding to calls in late April and early May.

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