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How Turkey Flocks Change Through the Fall – Part II

Gobblers may hang together in autumn, unlike in spring, or you may find solitary longbeards that can be identified in autumnl and winter. Study them during this time with the spring in mind.

Wild turkey flocks change in autumn in a variety of ways, including jakes starting to establish dominance and learning the pecking order. It’s just part of the natural cycle of things. Hunters interested in learning more about autumn turkey hunting strategies and biology can do so during this important time of the year.

This is the second of two parts from the Fall & Winter Turkey Hunter’s Handbook by Steve Hickoff. Read the first part here.

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.

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.

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. (Photo: Matt Poole/USFWS)

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.

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Steve Hickoff’s book, Fall & Winter Turkey Hunter’s Handbook. For more information visit hickoff.blogspot.com/.

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