Silent birds may bode well for hunters

A female wild turkey
A female wild turkey
Posted May 13, 2011, at 4:04 p.m.
Last modified May 13, 2011, at 10:55 p.m.

As the second week of Maine’s five-week spring season finishes up, many turkey hunters have been saying that the woods have been quiet. Too quiet, in fact.

Two Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists say that the lull in talkative turkeys needn’t worry those who are planning to head afield in the coming weeks. In fact, they say the fact that male turkeys aren’t gobbling as much as some may expect could be a very good thing for those looking to fill their tags.

Wild turkeys are typically vocal birds, especially during their spring breeding season. Hunters take advantage of that by imitating turkeys in their own calls, hoping to lure male birds — immature jakes or mature toms — within shooting or bow range.

Males emit the iconic gobble. Hens make high-pitched, raspy yelps, as well as other sounds. And hunters are telling biologists that they’re simply not hearing much activity from toms during the first 10 days of the season.

Brad Allen, who serves as the DIF&W’s bird group leader, doesn’t have a definitive explanation for that. But he does have an idea of what’s probably going on.

“I can’t really explain why they’re that quiet unless they’re in the presence of a lot of hens anyway, or not really hyped up,” Allen said. “The term is ‘henned up.’ It’s difficult to call a turkey away from three hens if he’s watching them through the field and is so focused on them.”

And if a tom already has his future mate in sight, he doesn’t need to gobble, or “broadcast,” his intentions to hens he hopes are nearby, Allen explained. The hen already knows the tom is interested; they’ve already found each other.

Maine hunters are limited to shooting only bearded (therefore likely male) birds during the spring season. Getting those toms within range is the key to filling a tag. Allen and his colleague, migratory and upland game bird biologist Kelsey Sullivan, said tagging stations are reporting average years thus far, but said hunters should notice a change in the coming days. The biologists said that despite the fact that a poor roosting year two years ago has led to fewer mature 2-year-old birds in the population, several huge 3-year-olds have been tagged.

“We’ve had a great first week, but from a hunting standpoint, the real interaction between hunter and turkey, based on calling, may get very good next week,” Allen said.

The reason is pure biology: Turkey hens lay a single egg each day until their clutch is complete. A typical hen may lay from 10 to 14 eggs. While many turkeys are still going through the mating motions, many others have completed their necessary tasks and are thinking of settling down.

“It takes two weeks to lay the whole clutch. That’s why you see a lot of hens wandering around by themselves,” Allen said. “They’ve already been to the tom, and the tom has done his thing. So they’re just laying an egg and feeding, laying an egg and feeding.”

Their conduct will change after that two-week egg-laying marathon ends. At that point (because she wants all of her eggs to hatch on the same day), the hen will begin incubating her eggs for the first time. The woods will belong to the toms.

Allen said on Tuesday that the two-week window was closing, meaning that the hens were beginning to sit on their eggs.

And it won’t take long before the toms become, well, desperate.

“[The hen] will be a loner. And the toms should get lonely and should be call-receptive next week,” Allen said.

Allen explained that hens have been dropping out of the mating pool for the past two weeks, and it won’t take long for those toms to take their acts on the road. Hunters will begin to sound sexy. Decoys will begin to look good. Or something like that.

“The guys haven’t been with the real thing for a week or two and they’re looking for them,” Allen said. “They’re broadcasting out to advertise.”

Some years, spring comes early. Some years, winter lingers. Every year, biologists hear from hunters who want to tinker with the dates of Maine’s season.

A year ago, for instance, snow melted early, and turkeys began their spring flings early.

“I think it’s interesting talking about how quiet it is now,” said Sullivan said. “That seems like it’s more in line with an average season versus last year, [when it warmed up] early, and in the beginning of the season there was a lot of response to calls because birds were already two weeks in. After the second week [of the 2010 season] it was quiet again.”

Allen said he’s happy with the timing of the season — May 2 through June 4 this year —  realizing that yearly weather fluctuations will make some seasons better than others.

“We’ve talked to [turkey hunting and conservation groups] from across the Northeast, and May is the month to have your season,” Allen said. “We kind of have to shoot for an average. What’s the average spring conditions? What’s the average date of incubation period? And it’s May.”

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