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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.


Tail Feathers: BRCNWTF,turkey,NWTF
The Jakes
A Group of Jakes

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.

 


Beard Length: BRCNWTF,turkey,NWTF

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:

  1. Growth Rate -- Some birds simply grow beards fast enough to overcome the wear factor.
  2. Habitat -- Some geographical areas have ground which is "softer" and does not wear the beard tips as much. Swampy area birds (Osceola) generally have longer beards and spurs than rocky area birds (Merriam's).
  3. Leg Length -- If the legs are longer the beard will grow longer before it starts to wear at the end.
  4. Filament Strength -- Beards with stronger individual filaments will not wear as quickly.
  5. Thickness: -- If a beard is really thick with lots of filaments and a large circumference, it will not wear as fast as a thin, wispy beard.
  6. Diet -- Certain foods may make a beard tougher and more wear resistant.
  7. Climate -- Northern birds or birds in areas with high snowfalls will often lose the tips of their beards when ice builds up on them and they break off.

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).

Icon After the Hunt With Lovett Williams
by Lovette., Jr. Williams, Lovett E., Jr. Williams
Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars
Out of Print--Limited Availability
 

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.

Beard Length
Tip Color
Age
0" to 4"
Amber
Younger than 1 year
4" to 5"
Amber
1 year
8" to 10"
Amber
2 years
10" plus
Black
3 years or older

Source: "The Book of the Wild Turkey - Williams" (1981)

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by Lovette E. Williams, et al (Paperback - June 1993)
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2. Studies of the Wild Turkey in Florida
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Spur Length: BRCNWTF,turkey,NWTF

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.

Age of Birds
(Years)
# of Birds Sampled
Avg. Spur Length
(in.)
Avg. Beard Length
(in.)
Avg. Weight
(lb.)
1
25
.26
4.44
15.5
2
27
.87
9.47
21.1
3
11
1.01
9.46
21.9
4
7
1.08
9.00
22.5
5
2
1.16
10.93
23.8
7
2
1.38
10.83
23.3
9
1
1.38
10.43
20.0
"5"2
19
1.18
11.09
22.7

         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
Source - R. Kelly - "Indexes for Aging Eastern Turkeys" (1975)
Third National Wild Turkey Symposium, p. 207


Wild Turkey Decoys ---Wild Turkey Calls

BRCNWTF,turkey,NWTF 

Spur Length
Curvature
Sharpness
Age
0" to 1/2"
Straight Rounded
1 year or a jake
1/2" to 7/8"
Straight Blunt
1 1/2 years (fall)
2 years (spring)
1' to 1 1/2"
Slight Curve Pointed
2 to 3 years
Over 1 1/2"
Curved Sharp
over 4 years

Estimating Gobbler Age by Spur Characteristics
Source - Williams - "
After the Hunt " (1996)


BRCNWTF,turkey,NWTF

Spur Length
Age
0" to 1/2"
1 year or a jake
1/2" to 7/8"
2 years
7/8' to 1"
3 years
1" and above
4 plus years

Source - Keck - "Talk'n Turkey"
Turkey Call Magazine May/June 2001 p. 104

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