Talking Turkey: How to Identify a Gobbler from a Hen

Tom on the left; hen on the right.  See the difference?
I love wild turkeys.  It's not that they're good eating, (which they are), or that they're gorgeous birds (which they are), but because they're wily, smart, and well adapted to the forest. Because they're so well camouflaged, you may have trouble finding them and identifying them, once you find them. 

Male or Female?

The biggest problem after you locate a herd, (they're too big in my book to be called a "flock"), is to determine whether you have a gobbler, tom, or male turkey or if you have a hen or female turkey.  If you have tags for either sex, then you probably aren't too worried about it.  However, if you're restricted to only males (toms or jakes, that is, a younger tom), you're probably scratching your head on how to recognize the differences if this is your first time hunting these wily birds.  So, let's take a look.  We'll take it head to tail, so to speak.
Tom turkey with snood and carbuncles

Turkey Heads

One of the biggest differences in turkeys is the turkey's head. The male has distinguishing features that are hard to miss.  They include a snood, (that is the pointy thing on top of their nose that drapes down over the beak), carbuncles (those are the reddish round things at the base of the neck), and a markedly blue and red head.

This photo of the tom turkey head is a good one because it shows how blue and red his head can get, especially during spring, which is their mating season.  The bright colors signal to the hens he's ready and willing.  You may note the snood going down his bill and at the very bottom of the photo, the beginning of the roundish red carbuncles.  (You can get a better look at the carbuncles in the picture of the four toms below.) Hens have smaller heads, although they may be blue and have some red, they have no real carbuncles, and their snoods aren't long at all. In fact, they're just vestigial.  If you look at the photo of the hens I've included, you'll note that they can have red and blue heads, just not as big or as well defined.

The Beard
Hen with Poult. Note the lack of snood, carbuncles, and beard.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature between toms and hens is the beard.  These are plumes of thin feathers that sprout from the chest and hang down like a ponytail in front of the bird. Toms and jakes typically have beards, but hens can occasionally have them too.  It's rare, but it does happen. Sometimes you'll find a jake without a beard, or one that hasn't grown long enough to distinguish it as male.  In that case, you'll have to use other identifying clues to determine if it is a male or female and you will have to follow your state or country's laws on what is a legal take.
These male turkeys have many distinguishing traits including beards

Lower Breast Feathers

If you really have to be sure that the bird you take is a tom, the surefire, never fail solution is to look at the lower breast feathers on the turkey. Hens always have lower breast feathers tipped with white or buff, while the toms and jakes always have black-tipped lower breasts.  When in the heat of trying to stalk and shoot, it can be difficult to determine their lower chest feathers, but properly identifying a tom from a hen is a must.

If you look at the photo of the four male turkeys, you can see the long beards, the snoods, the rounded carbuncles, and the black-tipped chest feathers.

Spurs on Legs

Toms and jakes naturally have spurs or very sharp "claws" that appear a little less than midway up their legs. Hens can get spurs and jakes can be too immature to show spurs, so spurs aren't necessarily the only thing you should base your identification on.
These two toms have pointy spurs on their legs


Tom and jake turkeys gobble.  Hen turkeys don't, but rather make yelps.  All turkeys can vocalize more than just gobbles, but it's a safe bet if a bird gobbles, it's male.  Other sounds turkeys make are cackles, purrs, clucks, yelps, putts and kee kees. If you're not sure what a turkey sounds like, you may want to check out these vocalizations.


Six toms strutting for hens
No doubt you recognize the puffed up male turkey as he's strutting and drumming for mates with that big tail fan.  This is probably how you might see your turkeys if you're hunting around springtime. But be careful.  Yes, female turkeys can fan too, although I haven't seen it in the wild yet.  I own a number of heritage domestic turkeys that show all of the behaviors the wild ones do.  (Mighty helpful for recognizing and hunting the wild ones.)  I have seen my female turkeys fan like the males and look like miniature versions of the males strutting when they get excited.  As I said, I haven't seen this in wild ones, but I suspect you might run into it if the hens get excited about something.  Just don't make the mistake of shooting a hen when you only have a tom tag.

Size Matters

Not surprisingly, the male turkeys are usually bigger than the hens, but hens can look sizable if they decide to puff up. Unless you have a mature gobbler, male turkeys can be as small as hens.  This is a good point to consider if it's illegal to hunt hens or jakes where you are at.

Hopefully, I've given you enough to identify your tom turkey this spring.  Good luck hunting and let us know what you got.

--MH Bonham


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