The tale of territorial tom turkeys
The Sportsmanís Report
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By Bill Hanson  March 21, 2014 12:00 am

Wild turkeys tend to be territorial. They find a good roost high in a favored tree to safely sleep with some protection from predators. 

Even the fearless raccoon is wary going too near adult wild turkeys. Sharp spurs, a razor-like beak and a nasty attitude make the tom turkey a formidable defender of his flock. Adaptable and enterprising, turkey flocks roam the wilds and forage all day. In urban settings, they stick to a neighborhood in the center of which is their “home tree.”

The adult males (toms) keep watch over the flock as a single unit. The boys hone their display skills, they dance, ruffle their feathers, growl, stamp their feet and hiss at one another. Young toms that circle the periphery of the phalanx of long-beards is just as likely to get a hard peck as not. They line up wing to wing and loudly gobble a warning to interlopers whom they perceive a threat to their flock. It’s a sorry lot that does not take the gobble challenge seriously.

During the spring mating season, the tom’s wrestling displays take on a more ominous air. There is pushing and shoving among the former allies. The brilliant colors on their necks and heads deepen and swell. The noodle on their beaks becomes a huge, hairy war declaration. They drift off to their own spots in the flock and constantly challenge each other to duels.

Within the flock there is seldom blood drawn, but sharp beaks draw firm lines for the other boys to heed. A tom from another flock is in for a real battle, as all the flock’s toms want a piece of the interloper. This is where we humans enter the picture. Our role as hunters is to convince the tom’s that we are challenging them to a duel, nothing less than the favor of the hens is at stake.

Beginning March 29 through May 4, turkey hunters dress in their best camouflage, find a bush to sit behind, set out a decoy hen or a colorful, fierce looking tom. Then they sit quietly until a gobble is heard in the distance. A quick blow on the rubber gobbler you bought sounds the challenge. If you’re lucky, a tom will come running to the challenge. This is where your skills as a turkey hunter are put to the test.

Even though they are blindly in rut, they are still wary. Some hunters find a hen decoy or two to work best. When the challenger appears, you make soft purring sounds and gentle clucks intended to emulate a disinterested hen. The challenger forgets the challenge for the moment and goes into his mating display. He fluffs his feathers, drags his wings and pulls in his neck, which makes the long, hairy looking feathers in the middle of his chest stick proudly at attention. He then stamps his feet and makes a fierce vibrating sound to show the girls his virility. The real hens play at feeding but subtly let the tom know his dance is being recognized. It’s sometimes hard to take the shot at just that moment. It seems a crime to blow off his feathers in the middle of his display. On the other hand, there are always more toms willing to woo the hens and father the chicks. It is not unusual to find several tom DNA strands in a hens’ clutch of chicks during the summer chick raising season.

If you are not a hunter for the table or are out to add another addition to your ‘beard’ collection in the den, consider hunting for the perfect picture. They are a majestic and beautiful bird. Catching them at the zenith of their mating dance is breathtaking. Be sure to bring something to bang on should they come after you. Jump up, bang on the garbage can lid or pot you brought and wave your arms, lest you risk a too close experience of beak and claw.


Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.

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