It’s that time of the year where everything wakes up and comes back to life. The trees and wildflowers are blooming providing a colorful landscape once again. Various shades of green are taking over the dull drab woods of winters past. Spring in West Virginia is a wonderful time to be outdoors. It’s also the time to pursue the magnificent wild turkey. No other animal makes the unique sound quite like the wild gobbler does in search of a mate. It’s the only time of the year that mating takes place and the males strut their stuff for the females.
Male turkeys are often called gobblers, Toms or jakes. Toms are mature birds and will have longer beards and their tail feathers are even when fanned out. Jakes are the juvenile males and their beards are much shorter, 2 to 3 inches, and the central tail feathers are longer than the outermost ones on the tail fan. Both have spurs used for fighting and can grow up to and over an inch on a mature Tom. Toms will band together and form an exclusive flock and keep to themselves most of the year. They don’t even really associate with the hens until spring. Jakes will remain with hen flocks until after fall when they disperse to form their own clan. The hens flock together year round but will disband for the spring mating and nesting season.
Some hens will have beards, but it’s rare. It’s been said that approximately 1 out of 10 hens will have a beard although it’s usually made up of a few strands and much less sparse than the paint brush looking beard of a mature Tom. Turkeys have featherless heads and hen turkeys are a blue-grayish color. Gobblers’ heads will change color during the spring mating season and even get a bright red color. Actually they’ll have red, white, and blue heads during spring in which some people think why they should symbolize the United States of America instead of the bald eagle.
A couple things to look for while out in the woods scouting before the season starts is of course fresh scratching where the turkeys scratch the leaf litter away in search of food. Another thing to look for is not only tracks, but track size. Gobblers will have a larger track than hens. If the distance from the middle toe to the back of the heel is 4 inches or longer it’s a gobbler, and if it’s less than 4 inches it was made by a hen. You can also look at the droppings as scat left from hens will be curled and those left from gobblers are usually straight or J- shaped. Turkey’s diets consist of an array of food items and will change with the seasons. Throughout the year they’ll feed on numerous types of grass, forb leaves, and seeds. In the summer and fall they’ll eat wild fruits and berries such as wild grape, cherry, blackberries, dogwood, etc.
As the insects emerge and become more active and present during the summer months, turkeys will consume them as well. They especially like grasshoppers and you’ll often see them out in the fields eating them and they provide a critical food source for the young poults. In the fall and winter, turkeys rely on nuts such as acorns and beechnuts. They pick and consume whatever food is left over to make it through the cold winter months. I watched 4 jakes adapt and walk on top of over a foot deep of packed snow this past winter. They were feeding on a field edge and the extra foot allowed them to reach higher up on the greenbrier vines to eat the berries that were out of reach beforehand.
Although wild turkeys can be found in all 55 counties of West Virginia nowadays, that wasn’t always the case. During the early 1900’s when the shay engine and railroad made its way up the hollows, destruction followed. Uncontrolled fires and poor logging practices left a rugged and barren landscape. Habitat was destroyed and the wildlife suffered as well as the native brook trout.
Wild turkeys became rare and could only be found in the inaccessible mountain regions of the state. Thankfully, the forests regrew and logging practices changed. Early efforts to raise and introduce pen raised turkeys failed due to the fact they didn’t have the abilities to survive in the wild.
The development of cannon and rocket launched nets was a huge help as wild turkeys could be trapped and relocated to other areas throughout the state. The hard work from the WVDNR has allowed us to enjoy the wild turkey all over the mountain state.
Spring gobbler season has been moved up and opened on April 18 and ends on May 14. A turkey taken during spring gobbler season must have a visible beard and the limit is 2 bearded turkeys with a daily bag limit of 1. Be extra safe out there this year and enjoy hearing those gobblers break the morning silence.