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How to Age Your Wild Turkey
Aging a wild turkey is at best an inexact science. Through the years, many biologists have researched techniques for aging a wild turkey gobbler in the field. From all of the research I have read, there really is no certain way for determining the age of a gobbler once he reaches 3 years of age and above. It is possible to identify a first year bird but it is a lot more difficult to determine if a bird is a 2 year-old, a 3 year-old or 4 years old or more.
There are several indicators used to judge the age of a wild turkey gobbler including tail feathers, beard length and spur length.
The tail feathers are really only useful in identifying jakes (1 year-old gobblers) from mature birds. When you fan out the tail feathers of a jake, the middle 2 to 5 sets of primary feathers will be 2 to 4 inches longer than the rest of the feathers giving the fan a "bump" in the middle. This happens during the late summer molt a young gobbler goes through when he replaces the middle primary tail feathers. In the second year, the tail molts in the standard adult pattern from the outside in and the gobbler will then have a full, even fan.
This characteristic is especially useful in determing the age of a strutting gobbler since you can determine quite easily if it is a mature bird or not from a long distance.
Beards are another variable that may be used in determining the age of a gobbler. Generally, beards grow at a rate of 4" to 5" a year and never stop growing. They also will generally get wider and thicker as the gobbler ages. Knowing this, you can be fairly certain a gobbler with a beard of less than 5" about a one year old bird.There are exceptions to this though since mature gobblers can lose most or all of the beard to various causes.
The beard length is only partially helpful in determining the age of a gobbler because after a bird reaches the age of 2, the beard reaches a length of 9" to 10" and it starts to wear down at the tip. When the bird feeds, the beards tip is worn by both getting stepped on by the tom and by dragging on the ground.
There are also many other variable which can affect the length of a beard including:
The best research I have seen relating beard characteristics to the age of a wild turkey gobbler can be found in Lovett Williams books "The Book of the Wild Turkey" (1981) and "After the Hunt " (1996).
In these books he talks about examining the tips of the beards to aid in determining the age of a gobbler. The end of a young gobbler's beard will appear translucent amber when held up to a light and it will have smooth, rounded tips on the filaments. As the beard continues growing, the amber tip will eventually wear off and the ends of the filaments will become jagged. Thus a gobbler with a 10" beard that still has its amber tips would be a 2 year old gobbler since the beard hasn't grown enough yet to completely wear off the amber tips.
Source: "The Book of the Wild Turkey - Williams" (1981)
Spur length is generally considered to be the most reliable characteristic in determining the age of a gobbler. Spurs will still show some wear differences due to the habitat or geographical area a turkey is found but generally they keep getting longer and sharper as the turkey ages.
There are a variety of differing opinions on spur length in relation to a gobbler's age so I'll present several theories here and let you choose the one you like.
One very interesting study, "Indexes for Aging Eastern Turkeys" by R. Kelly (1975) focused entirely on aging gobblers in Missouri. This paper shows how spur length, beard length and body weight are associated with known age Eastern gobblers.
To begin the study, a group of 50 known age gobblers were trapped as sub-adults, and fourteen "minimum known-age" gobblers were trapped as adults. The gobblers were banded and released in various locations and then were harvested in 20 different Missouri counties from 1962 to 1974. Twenty-five sub-adult birds were randomly selected from the 1973 harvest data in two counties.
Data from the harvested birds was collected and compiled, giving the following table.
2This group of gobblers had a minimum known-age of 5 years.
Length of Spurs and
Beards and Body Weights of Gobblers in Known Age Classes
Wild Turkey Decoys ---Wild Turkey Calls
Estimating Gobbler Age by Spur
Source - Keck - "Talk'n Turkey"
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