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How Flocks Change Through the Fall

(Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Steve Hickoff’s new book, Fall & Winter Turkey Hunter’s Handbook. For more information or to purchase, contact the author at  hickoff@comcast.net or 207-439-9119.)

Wild turkeys hatch throughout the spring and summer, depending on when the hen bred, and successfully nested. Since hatching times are varied, some autumn family groups contain young birds (especially males) the size of the adult brood hen. Other such fall flocks might have a recognizable female turkey leading birds-of-the-year that are considerably smaller. Biology tells us a typical clutch is eight to twelve eggs. A single family flock of a dozen birds is large. Predators take their fill.

A brood hen with just a single young bird or just several more can be occasionally seen due to predation, or weather factors, while big groups of several juvenile flocks and brood hens can be noted as well. These family flocks stay together until juvenile males leave to form their own jake groups in late fall. As mentioned, later in the autumn season, young gobblers tend to dominate flocks even more than adult hens, creating obvious disharmony. By then, they move on to form jake-only flocks. Sometimes these small male groups meet up with other gobblers in the area too. 

Fall turkey hunters sometimes wonder whether it’s okay to legally take a brood hen from a family flock. I’ve put this question to biologists, and they generally agree that the flock’s survival chances are good, as young birds grow wary over summer and into autumn. They have to. As a prey species, turkeys have it tough on a daily basis–young and adult alike. Late hatch flocks, those with pheasant-sized juveniles as hunting seasons begin, likely have more of a challenge, what with less experience in the wild.

This past late summer, through fall and into late winter, I watched a flock of nine juvenile turkeys without a brood hen. They had chosen a roughly five-acre area (split by the busy interstate highway) for their home ground, and roosted there. I’d see them on an almost daily basis, hugging the edge cover, and silently feeding on available foods. Why they were without a brood hen is anyone’s guess (roadkill?), but I watched through the months as the gobblers–four all told–grew to be easily distinguished from the smaller hens in the flock: red heads, black-tipped breast feathers, and sprouting beards told the story.

All winter they remained, disturbed only briefly by gawking motorists like myself, whereupon they would vanish into thicker, albeit limited, wooded cover. I never once heard any calling from that spot, and assume they got together daily on a purely visual basis. Some days I wouldn’t see them at all, just their tracks crossing the snowy on-ramp. Days later they’d be back. At one point in late winter, a young hen turned up dead along the major highway, having wandered out of the tight habitat.

As spring approached, I noted that all four young gobblers were suddenly gone from the group in their wanderlust mode. Not long after, a strutting mature longbeard had moved into the small area, and collected the remaining four hens for his effort. I never heard a gobble from him either, though I would listen for it at daybreak. Shortly after that, all of the turkeys were gone–all this several weeks before the spring hunting season opened.

Can a family flock survive without their brood hen? In this case, noting the loss of the single young hen, yes. Do turkeys go silent in a challenging situation when getting together visually makes calling unnecessary? In this case, maybe.

Todd fall turkey.jpgJAKE-ONLY FLOCKS
Fall jakes born that year become dominant before they leave the family flock in late autumn or winter, challenging the brood hen’s status. A single dominant jake will sometimes even call family flock members back together after the morning fly-down or after a predator (or hunter) flushes them. Flock harmony is disrupted for a time. While in the family group, and after they leave it, male turkeys routinely fight to establish pecking order.

In jake-only flocks, a dominant bird usually rules this entire group–until status is contested. This is why some of us have shot a gobbler, only to see other male birds move right in to peck at, claw, and mock breed the dead turkey. The survivors want top-dog status. As fall and winter progresses, these jakes will often join one or more adult gobblers. One bird in that group–often a longbeard–will hold spring breeding rights to all the hens in the area; that is, unless its position is challenged. Nevertheless, it’s also not uncommon to see a band of jakes defeat an adult gobbler in a fight. I’ve watched gangs of juvenile turkeys run off longbeards, and vice-versa.

Called “jake-and-a-halfs” or “super jakes” by us turkey hunters, these male birds are roughly sixteen to eighteen months old when autumn arrives, depending on geographical location. Distinguished from male birds under a year old, their beards are five to eight inches long. Their spurs are still less than an inch. Their tail fans are full. They run together in small groups, often the same birds they spent time with that past spring. They can appear identical, which suggests they were from the same brood. They work well to the autumn hunter’s call, often gobbling and even strutting, and provide a lot of enjoyment during the fall hunt. Their weight in your vest’s game pocket is substantial.

Remember, this is the same bird you passed on in spring because he had a beard resembling a stubbed-out cigar. Some autumn hunters will kill a super jake, and refer to it as a longbeard. That’s fine. Technically it is, I guess, but a wild gobbler that’s been alive for two years or more is often an entirely different creature.

Spring turkey hunters often prefer to take a dominant adult longbeard. As a result, there are often fewer available in the fall woods for us to hunt. In places like Missouri and Texas, where turkey densities are large, fall longbeards are more common. Other locations see fewer. In fall and winter, sometimes these adult birds run alone, or with super jakes, and/or juvenile males born that past late spring or summer. They may also be solitary.

After the New Hampshire bow season for turkeys ended one mid December, I noted the single tracks of an adult tom. I watched this gobbler off and on through that snowy winter. He rarely varied his daily pattern, moving from his preferred roosts–different tall, big-branched white pines–to several farmer’s fields where the gobbler could find waste corn in spread manure, the so-called “hot lunch program” for Snow Belt turkeys. Spring arrived, then the opening day of the May gobbler season. The longbeard came home with me that morning. Though his range included the several adjoining farms, changing roosting trees occasionally within that general area, he had not varied his day-to-day travels appreciably for roughly six months. I had scouted him that whole time.

While this might be an isolated case, solitary longbeards can be identified this way in fall and winter, assuming your season is open. You can also study them during this time with the spring in mind.

ajwithtkys.jpgHEN-ONLY FLOCKS
Juvenile females, or jennies as some call them, tend to remain with the brood hen until spring. Around then, you’ll often see single young or adult hens traveling alone, driven by biology to breed, find nesting locations, and hatch broods. Years ago, on a Florida spring hunt, I was routinely amazed to find myself calling in flocks of a half-dozen or more hens in different locations. Only one time during that particular stormy trip did I yelp up a solitary Osceola longbeard to the gun, and never did I see male birds with females. Weather? Timing? Likely both. Sometimes our effort to understand such flock-related matters is unsuccessful.

If hens–adults or young female turkeys–should breed unsuccessfully, or not breed at all, they will gather in groups within that habitat, and stay together through fall and winter. This dynamic creates the broodless flock. In such groups, female turkeys that are one-and-one-half years old by autumn (super jennies, if you will) stay together. Adult hens that nested unsuccessfully may be in this group too. Again in late fall, you may also encounter a brood hen with female turkeys born that year, especially if growing fall jakes have left that family flock.

The adult longbeard is considered the ultimate challenge in the fall and winter turkey woods, but hunting a broodless hen or hens is equally difficult. It should also be noted that a small percentage of female turkeys bear thin, wispy beards–one such example is accurately depicted by John James Audubon, I might add, in his version of a brood hen with poults. I’ve certainly seen them now and again over the years.

 As my then 7-year-old daughter told me: “Daddy, different people think different things.” And if that isn’t a statement for tolerance as turkey-hunting opinions go, I don’t know what is.

As an informed turkey hunter in the modern age, you need to tolerate certain camp storytellers who suggest fall gobblers don’t gobble, that hens don’t ever have beards, and that longbeards never travel with family flocks. They do, they do, they do. Think what you want, but sometimes unusual flocks are encountered each fall and winter, despite uninformed conjecture.

Despite nature’s effort to put young birds with brood hens, and male gobblers with others of their kind, those of us who watch wild turkeys have seen flocks defying definition.

I’ve witnessed adult autumn gobblers moving through the woods with family flocks, and seen combinations of brood hens, juveniles, and males in huge alliances.
I’ve flushed an adult gobbler flock, only to see a single young turkey work to my calling. Given the complexity of the outdoor world, the ever-alert wild turkey will simply meet up with, and spend time with others of its kind.

Often, turkey flocks grow larger, and more diverse, when a favored food source is both concentrated in one location, and abundantly available. Scarce food sources cannot sustain a large flock, and groups must sometimes break up to create a more compatible unit for foraging. Flock combinations and associations can indeed be brief.

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