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Talking about signs of spring last week generated several calls from folks who reminded me of one of the more modern signs of spring: wild turkeys.
Thirty years ago there were essentially no wild turkeys in Maine, but after many years of hard work under the guidance of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Phil Bozenhard, we now have a stable, growing population of birds, so many in fact that this year hunters will be able to harvest two gobblers per season.
A well-documented success, Maine’s turkey program is a feather in the caps of our state biologists, and sportsmen and bird watchers alike now reap the benefits. If you ever wonder where our license money goes, count the number of birds you see the next time you encounter a roadside flock. I’ve heard reports of 40, 50 and more birds traveling and feeding together.
What’s interesting to me is that the spring turkey season in Maine opens May 1, which is the traditional opening date in most states, give or take a few days. Not long ago, say 10 years past, the May season was ideally timed for a spring hunt. The snow had barely left the woods and the birds were just getting into their spring breeding mode.
Lately, however, milder winters and balmier springs have spurred the birds on to breed much earlier, at least if the present signs are any indication. One correspondent has told me (and sent photos) of strutting, gobbling males following hens around the pasture as early as March 1, and on March 8 gobblers were observed breeding hens. This is nearly eight weeks “early” based on a May hunting season. It raises the question: Why can’t we have a mid-March or April season opener, perhaps even a split season? Not that hunting in May is unproductive, but it seems that the peak of the breeding activity is actually weeks sooner.
Of course, one could make the case that it’s good for the birds to be allowed to breed well before opening day because there will be the maximum number of gobblers available to do the job before hunters come along to thin their ranks. It may be mathematically logical to have the majority of hens bred by May 1, but there’s something to be said for hunting during the peak of the breeding season. It’s every hunter’s dream to be in the woods at dawn with a dozen gobblers roosted all around and every one of them looking for a receptive hen. A few decoys, a cluck and yelp may be all it takes to put a gobbler in the freezer.
If you are seeing big flocks of turkeys in your area these days, enjoy the sight, because in the next several weeks the dynamics of the flock will change. The males (gobblers and “jakes,” or first-year males) will separate from the hens and begin traveling in bachelor flocks, while “boss” gobblers will seek out, roost and travel with the hens.
Come the breeding season, which has already started in some parts of the state, the males will strut and gobble to attract hens and, if necessary, fight with each other for breeding rights. As is usual among the wild things, the hens seem to ignore these battles, feeding along quietly while the males do their best to establish their dominance over each other. The jakes take the worst of the beating, not wanted by the hens or the gobblers. In many cases the jakes will travel in company with other jakes, because it’s safer for them in the long run. The more mature males may allow the jakes to travel with them, but when hens are spotted the older males go into their strutting routine and shoulder the younger birds out of the picture.
All of this activity can be observed over the next few weeks if you have the time and inclination to watch. This would also be a good time to do some scouting in anticipation of hunting season. In most cases, turkeys are creatures of habit, roosting in the same area (a hardwood ridge, normally), flying down at dawn to feed all morning, and then returning to the roosting area before sunset. Generally, where and when you see turkeys on a given day, they will be there the next day and the next unless they are disturbed or chased off by predators. If you can arrange to be on hand first thing in the morning or the last thing at dusk, you can see where the birds are coming from or where they are going.
This, of course, gives you the inside edge on the flock’s travel agenda when it’s time to hunt. In a perfect world, you can use this information to set up and be ready to call them to an area they already plan on visiting, which does work . . . in a perfect world.
The glitch will be that some other hunter has the same idea and may have staked out “your” birds. For this reason, it’s a good idea to travel around and find other flocks that, you hope, the competition has missed.
If you approach opening day with five or six flocks in mind the odds are you will have a successful season. There is, of course, much more to successful turkey hunting than just locating a flock of birds, and we’ll discuss some of the finer points of the sport in the weeks to come.
For now, however, enjoy the spectacle of seeing flocks of 20-pound birds feeding, dusting, running, flying, strutting and gobbling in our midst. It’s a sight our grandparents never dreamed of, and it’s thanks to hunters and our wildlife managers that we have the opportunity to observe, photograph, study and hunt these most challenging of game birds.
Forget bluebirds or geese, the sight of a big tom turkey in full strut, wings down, tail fanned, gobbling for all he’s worth, is the surest sign of spring. Pull over and enjoy the show – nature study doesn’t get any better than this!
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