Moving along a logging trail, a good 20 minutes before daylight, I turned off and climbed a very steep ridge that opened to a big stand of hardwood trees, bordered by an old clear cut.
I was moving in haste because I did not want to be seen by at least three tom turkeys, roosted just below the ridge, off to my right about 125 yards away. They gobbled back, repeatedly, to my owl hooting.
I found a big tree to rest against and pulled out an assortment of three calls — a diaphragm call, a box call and a slate call. Then I pulled on a head net and rested. Every once in a while, I would cut loose with a vocalized version of a barred owl and, without fail, one or all of the toms would answer back with a lusty gobble.
It was two days before the May 1 opener of the spring turkey season. With three birds sounding off, my guess was that I was talking to three or more jake birds (one-year-old toms). As daylight emerged, I yelped softly with the diaphragm (mouth) call, took a long swig of water and settled back.
While some turkey hunters will tell you they can easily differentiate between the gobble of a jake bird and that of a mature tom, I have found that is not always the case. Mature birds have a tendency to cut loose with a full-throated, extended gobble, while jakes will often not quite finish their version of a gobble. But I have observed jakes up close that gobbled like an old tom.
Anyway, a half hour later, I had three jake birds about 15 yards in front of me. Only one of those toms would display, while all three gobbled repeatedly, looking for the hen they heard earlier. It is customary among toms, both with jakes and mature birds who may be traveling together, that only one will display, but, like everything else about wild turkey behavior, there are no rules. I have watched three long-beards (jakes have short, spindly beards, while mature birds often carry beards that measure eight or nine inches or more) all displaying while seeking out the hen (that is, my calling) that sounds like she is eager to be bred.
I personally believe that a mature tom turkey, in full display, up close, is the most incredible thing, out in the Vermont woods, that you will ever witness. Here is why:
Imagine a prehistoric-looking bird, weighing about 20 pounds, out in front of you, not 25 yards away. He is so pumped up, his chest feathers rising up, that he appears twice his size. His wing tips are dragging on the forest floor (I have shot many toms that had the tips of their wings worn off considerably because of this behavior). His full fan is up and spread out at 180 degrees.
And here is perhaps the most amazing aspect of his display — sometimes, right before your eyes, his head will change from fire-engine red, to pure white, to powder blue.
Oh, and throw in his gobble, which at 25 yards is more like a primal scream, so loud, so insistent, his head extended to broadcast the sound. I call it the metallic gobble.
Meanwhile, and this is almost comical, he struts around, in short, jerky steps, turning this way and that to show his potential mate, “Hey, take a look at me. Am I what you are looking for?”
All of this behavior, of course, occurs when a mature tom either sees a hen or has reason to believe that a hen is nearby. Thus, the term “displaying.”
And the beard, that hairy-like, black thing that juts from his thick chest? Authorities well-versed on the ways of the wild turkey, folks who know far more about turkey biology than I, can only guess that the beard is merely one other element of the bird’s rank in the pecking order of the wild turkey, another feature meant to appeal to the eyes of a hen, ready to breed.
There’s one thing more. That same strutting, gobbling, show-off, turned-on tom will also “spit and drum.” There is much debate about where the sound comes from, but I read somewhere that the drumming sound (I will lamely explain it here as sounding something like: putooooom, putooooom, but very soft. If you hear it, the tom is extremely close to you) comes from the chest area.
Anyway, I cannot remember ever hearing a jake drumming but, boy, did this jake go deep and frequent with the sound on that morning back in April. Mark down yet another surprise, at least for this turkey hunter, about the ways of the tom turkey.
One final note about all of this displaying stuff: If you are out there and you get to see this strange, yet astounding behavior and you are carrying a shotgun, I guarantee that your heartbeat will be up there. Hey, even without a firearm, it would be something you would never forget. Enjoy the show.
Contact Dennis Jensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.