The Turkey's Spring Courtship Ritual
The wild turkey’s breeding season starts in February in southern regions and occurs in April or May farther north. The birds’ urge to breed is triggered by increasing daylight hours, which stimulate the sex hormones of the toms. Cold and rainy weather can delay the onset of mating. Conversely, unusually warm weather in February or March can speed up the breeding ritual.
During late winter and early spring turkeys congregate by sex in flocks. Hens hang with hens and their poults, while gobblers run together. Within these flocks the previous autumn, hens and gobblers established pecking orders that carry over to the spring. Dominant toms hook up with the first mature, receptive hens and do most of the early breeding in February or March.
As the days become longer and warmer the primary courtship period approaches. Hens break up into small flocks and disperse widely to good nesting areas throughout their home ranges. Toms split up and follow the hens around the woods, gobbling lustily. Toms are polygamous and gobble and strut to attract many hens.
The hen-gathering time, which may last several days or weeks, is the first of two “gobbling peaks.” In years of normal weather, this stage typically occurs from mid-March to early April in southern regions and in mid- or late April in northern and western states.
Once toms are rimmed with harems of hens, gobbling activity decreases. At dawn, many turkeys gobble only a few times if at all on the roost. Mature toms fly down with their ladies and clam up. The turkeys may gobble only a few times all morning as they strut around and breed hens. Hunters call this phase, when the toms are “henned up,” the “gobbling lull.”
In a week or so impregnated hens begin slipping off from the gobblers to lay one egg each day, generally during the late-morning hours. Hens nest at the bases of trees or around fallen longs, often in dense cover and near a water source. It takes nearly two weeks for a hen to lay a full clutch of 10 to 12 speckled eggs.
Finally having filled their nests, hens desert the toms for good to incubate their eggs. Still ready and willing to breed, lovesick gobblers prowl the woods and fields for new hens, gobbling long and hard once again. The second gobbling peak may last a few days or a week, and it’s a prime time to hunt.
The Wild Turkey in the Fall and Winter
Once the spring breeding season is history, gobblers and hens go their separate ways. But turkeys are always gregarious and feel safety in numbers. Throughout summer and autumn, hens with poults band together. Old, broodless hens flock up. Mature gobblers, many of them siblings, run together in bachelor’s clubs. In late fall or early winter young gobblers, or jakes, hook up like rowdy teenagers and hang out together. Turkeys stay in four types of flocks until the mating season begins again in February or March, and then the grand spring ritual and the bombastic gobbling begin anew.