Most turkey hunters want to know everything they can about turkey behavior regarding hunting tips. But only the most passionate wish to learn everything they can, even if it has nothing to do with hunting. That’s me—I’m that passionate wild turkey enthusiast who wants to observe and learn everything I can about these magnificent gamebirds. The best time to watch wild turkeys is while you are sitting for hours hunting deer. The fall and winter woods present perfect opportunities to observe turkeys closely. The fallen leaves allow deep views into the woods. Someone once told me that a turkey walking through the woods sounds like a human, and remarkably, it does. They are not as quiet as you would think they might be. They seem to have no concern about being stealthy—except during turkey season!
I prefer to sit in the woods rather than on food plots, bean fields, or cutovers, even if my chances of spotting more deer could be better in those locations. My most recent whitetail hunt at Deerfield Plantation in St. George, South Carolina, was super-exciting and had more to do with turkeys than deer! Without a doubt, the stand I sat in for this memorable afternoon hunt has been a long-time favorite of mine. It is ideally situated, with a long winding lane with lots of white sand, which provides a nice contrast long after sunset, allowing a few extra minutes of hunting time—a plus for me, since I have a challenge with night vision. I was excited about the cold temperatures, with morning highs in the 30s and the afternoon at a pleasant 50 degrees. It was a welcome change from our sometimes balmy South Carolina winters. I sat and soaked up the energy from the woods, my senses overflowing from the beauty, peacefulness, and sheer appreciation for nature. I had already taken a nice doe on my second sit, so I was pretty content. Only the fluttering sounds of falling leaves broke the silence until suddenly, I heard something walking behind my stand. I instantly knew I was in for excitement as I counted 24 turkeys that I thought were made up of hens.
They were pecking hurriedly at the ground, looking for grubs and grasses. Once they discovered the loose corn dropped while the feeder was being filled, they rushed to scavenge in the dirt for the welcome kernels.
It was around 4 p.m., and the birds gathered around the feeder about 80 yards from my stand. They wasted no time filling up on the corn. I watched as they retreated to the woods on my right.
A LONE TURKEY APPEARED AT THE FEEDER AND A DOMINANT HEN CALLS LOUDLY- LOOK CLOSELY AND YOU CAN SEE IT’S BEARD …
To my surprise, about 20 minutes later, I saw a lone turkey return to the feeder, and I thought it unusual for one to leave the flock. At about the same time, I heard another hen in the woods to the right of my stand calling out aggressively. Her loud, raspy yelps were a clue that she was a dominant hen. The lone bird softly answered, and the dialogue continued for a couple of minutes. The boss hen sounded more and more desperate to get the other bird back to the flock, and her yelping got louder and much more passionate. “I’m here . . . I’m here!” is what I thought she was trying to communicate.
VERY ODD BEHAVIOR FROM THE LONE TURKEY AS A DOMINANT HEN CALLS PERSISTANTLY.
Oddly, the lone turkey was heading in the opposite direction, away from the dominant hen’s calls. I first thought that this turkey had a lousy sense of direction as it ran toward the woods where the loud yelping was coming from, but then retreated away from the yelps, toward the cutover. I struggled to get a clear view of the turkey, since I was using my smartphone to shoot video of its movements. Interestingly, I detected it had a small, blunt beard. I was pretty sure that gender groups had long since been established by this time of year, with the hens separating from the jakes and gobblers, so I was confused. Was I looking at a jake, or could it be a bearded hen? It was strange, but the lone bird changed directions twice as it moved toward the sound of the hen’s calls but then retreated away to the cutover, then the lane to my left.
THE DOMINANT HEN APPEARS AT THE FEEDER AND TRACKS THE LONE TURKEY
The dominant hen was not giving up, and at about 5 p.m., she suddenly popped out of the woods, walked over to the feeder, ate a few kernels, and proceeded to track the lone turkey across the heavy cutover onto the lane to my left, yelping persistently. But about this time, I could barely hear the solitary turkey answer. I was intrigued by this behavior, and my deer hunting was now more like turkey watching.
THE DOMINANT HEN WAITS FOR THE LONE BIRD TO COME TO HER IN THE LANE
She stood there for some time, and what happened next surprised me! At 5:15 p.m., the lone turkey reluctantly stepped out of the woods line and walked to meet the dominant hen in the middle of the lane. The dominant bird fell silent and turned her back to the lone bird as he pecked at the corn on the road. During the next five minutes or so, they more or less stood around and didn’t communicate very much. My imagination was going wild . . . what did all this mean?
BOTH TURKEYS IN THE LANE – SILENT TREATMENT AND THEN…..
Then, the solitary bird started walking away toward the woods, and there was a second when the dominant bird became aggressive, lunging toward the lone bird. My eyes were glued on the turkeys as I watched both birds walk into the woods out of sight. I could hear some exchanges between them, and not long after, one of the birds (I am presuming the lone bird) walked out and went farther down the road, disappearing from my sight at about 400 yards where the road curved. The winter sky was getting darker, and sunset was nearly upon us. Surely it was time for the turkeys to get onto their roost for the night, and since the dominant turkey had gone quiet, I could only guess that she had returned to her flock in the connecting woods behind my stand. I had to shake off my strong desire to watch and listen for the turkeys—after all, we were days away from the end of the 2022 whitetail season, and my focus was on hunting a deer. Darkness soon took over, and my deer hunt was over.
I am not sure what this behavior was all about. At first, I thought the dominant bird was trying to get a “lost hen” back to the flock, but I am pretty confident that the bird was not lost—it wanted to leave. But why would a bird leave the safety of the flock? Was the dominant bird making sure the solo bird was going to leave the flock permanently to ensure her position as alpha hen? Was it a mother hen saying goodbye to her jake offspring and pushing him out of the nest? Or did I have it all wrong? Why was the dominant turkey so aggressively calling and tracking the other bird? Most behavior of wild turkeys has to do with the pecking order, but I don’t know what caused this strange interaction between these birds.
I could hardly wait to get back home to see if I could piece together what this could have meant. I read everything I could find about wild turkey behavior. I enhanced my photos and videos as much as possible to see if I could tell more about the lone turkey’s gender. As far as I could tell, the lone bird had a bluer head and neck with no visible feathers and appeared larger than the dominant hen.
After consuming as much information as possible from resources on the internet, I found one plausible explanation. Only older hens have beards, and these are typically wispy. Many years ago, I took a bearded hen, and I remember how sparse its beard was. The short, blunt beard on the lone bird strongly indicates that this was a young jake. I also read that juvenile males sometimes assert dominance before they leave the family flock in the late fall or winter. Perhaps the boss hen wanted to get rid of this young male to protect her position in the flock.
I wish I had a closer photo of the bird in question. In that case, I could have used other characteristics to identify the gender positively. The feathers are the most distinctive features, as hens have less colorful feathers than toms, with rusty brown, gray-tipped breast feathers. Their heads are either white or blue-gray, with small feathers on both the head and neck. On the other hand, jakes and toms have gleaming, black-tipped feathers and bald heads with prominent blue and red coloring.
As I look back at the sequence of my photos and videos from that exciting afternoon, I feel privileged to have observed this interaction between the birds. I learned nothing new about turkey hunting, but the experience was one I will never forget.
Do you have a different interpretation? I would love to hear from you! Please send a comment!