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To Find the Gobblers, Keep Track of the Hens

March 14, 2016
By Ralph Scherder - OV Times Hunting Editor , Ohio Valley Outdoors

For the most part, we lucked out this winter. We didn't get many long stretches of extreme cold and it warmed up just often enough to keep the snow drifts at bay. Overall it seems like wildlife fared pretty well this winter, too, and it's now time to turn our thoughts toward spring gobbler.

It's common to see gobblers strutting in a field with hens by mid March. All it takes is a nice warm day, and sometimes not even that, to get them feeling frisky even in February. The primary breeding season for turkeys, though, is late March through April. Like any other breeding window for any other species, there's usually a buffer of a few weeks before and after that time when breeding can occur. I've seen gobblers breed hens from February clear through May, although they may not actually lay their eggs during that time.

Hens are able to store sperm from males for up to eight weeks after breeding takes place. This delayed fertilization allows them time to wait until conditions are right before beginning the nesting process. Weather and habitat are the two primary factors that dictate nesting, which is why there can be a big difference from year to year as to when poults start showing up.

Article Photos

If you want to know where the gobblers are, then find the hens, and that means finding the habitat where they will feel safe while nesting and rearing their brood. Photo by Ralph Scherder

When a hen finally decides to make her nest, she will lay one egg per day for eight to 20 days. The typical nest consists of 10-15 eggs. Throughout the process, she keeps close watch and stays nearby, although she won't actually start to incubate the eggs until they've all been laid. The incubation process then takes about 28 days, during which time she will rarely leave the nest.

At least half, and sometimes more, of the poults won't live longer than one year due to predation by coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and avian predators. If they can survive their first year of life, though, turkeys are pretty much in the clear and will only occasionally get picked off by a predator. Their flocking nature helps keep them safe. By fall of their first year, young males leave the flock and create their own little bachelor groups, and these jakes hopefully make it to the following spring where they call out from their roosts in the early morning light.

We don't often think about the life cycle of a hen turkey, but in truth, the hens control everything in the turkey hunting world. Figure out what the hens are doing and you'll likely have more success bagging that trophy gobbler.

Fact Box

We don't often think about the life cycle of a hen turkey, but in truth, the hens control everything in the turkey hunting world. Figure out what the hens are doing and you'll likely have more success bagging that trophy gobbler.

It all starts with nesting habitat. If the area you're hunting lacks quality nesting habitat, there simply won't be any hens in the area. Nesting habitat consists of dense brush, thick grassy fields, and areas that have been timbered in the past few years. The key is that a hen needs to feel safe. During the 28-day incubation period, hens and their nests are extremely vulnerable, and there has to be enough cover to conceal her from predators.

If the area you're hunting lacks good nesting habitat, it will also lack birds, plain and simple. No hens, no gobblers. A gobbler, after all, will only occupy an area if he feels there is a reasonable chance of encountering a receptive hen. By breeding season, hens are already gravitating toward good nesting areas, and by default so are the gobblers. When you think about it, it's no different than hunting whitetails in the rut. Find the doe groups and you will surely find the bucks.

One way to locate the hens is to scout food sources and look for fresh scratchings. Food sources bordering good nesting habitat are golden in the world of turkey hunting. Write them down or mark them on a map if you have to. They will be consistent places to hunt year after year.

Of course, there's another element that shouldn't be overlooked and that is rearing habitat. Rearing habitat is often closely associated with food sources, and can be one in the same if those food sources meet certain requirements. For instance, once broods are hatched, the hen will quickly lead her chicks to rearing habitat, and the closer it is to the nesting site, the better. A shorter travel distance means greater poult survival rates.

Rearing habitat consists of grasses or areas where there are lots of insects. Many times, these are little openings in the woods where the ground may be a little swampy or especially damp and be home to large populations of bugs for chicks to feed on. If you plant food plots for whitetails, consider planting a few native grasses preferred by turkeys as nesting and rearing habitat in the spring. Also, leave plenty of natural openings in your woods.

Hearing a gobbler sound off from its roost on a cool spring morning is a magical thing. It's also the easiest and most obvious way to locate a bird. However, not all birds gobble every morning in fact, there are certain individuals that just don't gobble at all but you can still locate them if you know where to look.

When you have success in the turkey woods, it's easy to forget the big picture. It's more natural to place emphasis on your decoying and calling abilities than it is to focus on why those birds were even in the area in the first place. If you want to know where the gobblers are, then find the hens, and that means finding the habitat where they will feel safe while nesting and rearing their brood.

 
 

 

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