We were convinced we were looking at an old warrior turkey, weathered and scarred from battles fought. My, were we ever wrong!
I couldn’t sleep—I never can the night before Opening Day of turkey season. When my wake-up call blasted me out of bed, I immediately went on autopilot, gulping down my coffee, grabbing a quick shower to wake up, and then throwing on my clothes, which I’d laid out perfectly the night before. As always, I allowed at least 30 minutes to make myself presentable, visualizing that photo with my beautiful turkey in my arms. But I also knew that no amount of camouflage or feminine war paint would cover up those dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep.
I headed out the door to make the early morning drive, dreaming aloud about the turkey woods where I would hunt. I turned up the volume on the radio and sang along to country music to keep myself awake. I laughed at myself because no one was there to be annoyed with my singing out of tune and messing up all the words. Little did I know that this Opening Day would be like no other I had ever experienced.
My hunting buddy Kim Davis and I had set up a blind on a familiar spot in Mullins, South Carolina, where we both killed turkeys a couple of years ago. We met up at the designated time, but the sky was already hinting at the transition from night to light, and at that moment I realized that I had misjudged. We were getting there at sunrise rather than at first light. Timing errors couldn’t be undone, but we did our best, making our way stealthily to the blind and not saying a word. We had put a marker on the spot where we wanted to set up our jake and hen decoys and hurriedly got them placed. Once we settled into the blind, we listened intently for the sounds of gobbles. There was already pink in the sky, so I started with some soft clucks and muted purrs.
This was my first time using my brand-new scratch box. I intended to make my turkey sounds worthy of this call and focused particularly on my calling cadence. An hour passed with no sounds except the sweet, seductive chorus of songbirds. Then an owl hooted several times. I thought would surely provoke a shock gobble response from a tom, but silence, at least so far as turkeys were concerned, continued to reign supreme. Another 40 minutes passed. I was being careful not to sound desperate with my calling, continuing to focus on those soft, seductive purrs, clucks, and yelps.
Then it happened, as it so often does with turkeys. A gobble that sounded like it was no more than 50 yards away shattered the silence. It seemed like the ground shook, although a subsequent check revealed no indications of minor earthquakes that particular morning. My heart pounding, I resisted the impulse to call again.. About five minutes passed and though I should have known better, I ventured some soft yelps and purrs. The tom was interested and gobbled again. A small degree of common sense when it comes to overcalling kicked in and I went silent. I readied my shotgun and sat motionless, hoping he was coming in. I lost track of how much time went by, but after what seemed an eternity and was probably, in reality, less than 10 minutes, out of the corner of my eye I caught a motion to the left. The tom was on his way in, intent on getting on dealing with the interloper jake.
The show began as he fanned out, and stalked my jake decoy. I waited until his head was high, and boom!—he dropped immediately at the shot. My eyes filled with tears. My emotions were running high from the lack of sleep and my determination to take this wondrous game bird. It was not the biggest turkey I had ever killed, but to me, every turkey taken feels like the first one, and from my perspective, every bird fairly called and cleanly killed is a trophy.
As we approached the bird, both Kim and I stared hard at the turkey’s head. This bird was unlike any gobbler we had ever seen. Instead of the normally bright blue coloration, this bird’s head was blue, purple, and black.
His feet were scarred and peeling! We were convinced we were looking at an old warrior turkey, weathered and battered from battles fought. Or so we initially thought. This was my seventh season hunting turkeys, and upon closer examination, I was pretty sure something was wrong with this bird.
After a quick photo, I carefully examined the turkey’s head. The dark, crusty nodules in particular seemed quite strange. As I started to field dress the turkey, my every instinct told me that this bird was not healthy. After removing the fan, beard, and tagged leg, I decided to discard the carcass.
The following day, I started researching what it meant for a turkey to have predominantly black coloration on its head. I soon found much information about lymphoproliferative disease virus (LPDV), which has been studied in both wild and domestic turkey flocks. And then I found a photo of a wild turkey with the same black, wart-like head as my bird’s and realized that my instincts were probably right: My turkey had a virus! This was turning out to be a turkey tale of our times!
I emailed the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and included photos and information about my hunt. A short time later, I received a call from Jake Oates, a state wildlife biologist, who confirmed that my turkey had LPDV, Oates referred me to SCDNR’s Big Game Program Coordinator, and Certified Wildlife Biologist®Charles Ruth, and told me he would forward my information to him. It was not long before I received a call from Ruth, who was extremely helpful and generous with his time. My interest piqued, I now was on a mission to explore the importance and the impact this disease, often known as “black head,” might have on wild turkey populations. Ruth graciously answered some questions that I felt were important for turkey hunters.
Know how to recognize a healthy turkey
Gobblers typically have no feathers on their heads, and during the breeding season, the colors of their heads can change from red, white, and blue quickly. Aggressive birds’ heads may be redder if there is jake in the area, and they tend to have blue coloration if they are excited when they see a willing hen.
What should hunters do if they suspect they have killed a turkey with symptoms of LPDV?
Contact your state wildlife agency or department of natural resources. Officials will discuss the case with you and decide whether to attempt to take samples or investigate further. Remember that LPDV has been recognized in North America only since 2009. This can be a serious disease in domestic turkeys and can cause significant mortality.
“On the other hand, it appears to be endemic (found regularly) in wild turkeys in many states,” Ruth told me. “Clinical cases involving obviously sick birds are not common. It seems to be in the background in wild turkeys.”
When I asked whether or not hunters need to take photos or collect specimens, Ruth said these steps are not necessary.
What should hunters not do?
Don’t eat it! “It is good not to consume a wild turkey if the disease is suspected,” Ruth explained. “Never consume any game that appears sick or displays signs of being unhealthy.”
Is LPDV an immune response to avian pox?
Ruth told me this is unlikely. “No. However, a bird with avian pox may be more susceptible to LPDV due to a compromised immune system,” he said.
There are many unknowns- can you summarize what we do and don’t know?
“LPDV has only been recognized in North America since 2009,” said Ruth. “It is caused by a virus and is likely spread from bird to bird through direct contact. The effects of LPDV on wild turkey populations are unclear. At this time there is no evidence that LPDV is important mortality or population factor in wild turkeys.”
Is there anything we hunters can do to help the turkey population?
“Stay educated on the latest research, particularly related to season timing,” Ruth told me.
Do you think the decline of turkeys in the Southeast has been affected by LPDV?
“We don’t know but there is no evidence at this time that LPDV is involved in the Southeast turkey decline,” said Ruth. “That said, many turkey experts believe that LPDV may be just one of many things that are playing a role in the decline, kind of one of those death-by-a-thousand-cuts analogies. But again, there is no evidence that it is of significance at this time.”
If you are interested in learning more about turkey diseases, this is an excellent link:
LPDV summary report: https://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/WildTurkeyDiseaseProject-LymphoproliferativeDiseaseVirusLPDV4.26.2016.pdf
Turkey hunters look forward to the season with such anticipation and excitement, and the last thing we want is to take home a diseased bird. I was surprised that very few hunters had taken a turkey like this or had knowledge regarding diseased birds. I hope this article brings insight to the topic and that we continue as hunters to help our turkey populations thrive.