Hunting > Turkeys

Decipher the Pecking Order

A lot of turkey behavior can be predicted based on their hierarchical system. These tips will help you decipher the pecking order. 


Three 2-year-old gobblers were 150 yards away across an open hardwood bench. The canopy hadn’t leafed out yet, so I could see them in yellow late-morning light pecking along, just raising their heads when I yelped. Now and then the lead tom would half-gobble. After two hours they’d meandered 100 yards closer. At that rate they wouldn’t be in range before the noon whistles blew from volunteer fire departments down in the Catskill Mountain valleys below, ending turkey hunting for the day. There was no obstacle to stop them. They seemed to prefer subtle purring and yelping. Loud stuff made them nervous.

Then a tom gobbled not 20 yards behind me and I knew why they were hesitant. I leaned into the tree. The gobbler strutted past and stopped at my decoy. I shot the bird there, but then I was stupefied. The three young gobblers dashed in and one leapt on and began spurring the dead gobbler.

That event reminded me that there are reasons why jakes sneak in; why hens can be stubborn; why lone gobblers can be easy to call in; and why that young tom thrashed that dead gobbler. Most of the explanations are related to turkey hierarchy.

First, the Ladies
Turkeys have home ranges, not territories. Their social structure is hierarchical, not territorial. A gobbler and its harem will move according to a feeding pattern each day that’s established by the dominant hen. As hens go to nest, this pattern may change with the whims of the next dominant hen in the social structure. If it’s late in the breeding cycle when hens are going to their nests, this could affect your tom’s daily schedule.

If you hear a single hen calling you have one of two scenarios: either it’s a lone and lonely hen or it’s the dominant hen of a gobbler’s harem telling you she’s the leading lady. If it’s a lone hen, an obstacle or another turkey may stop it, but if not, get ready to sit still. If it’s a dominant hen in a harem, it may answer you aggressively for a while, but then it’ll likely lead the group away. Though, if the hen is in a fighting mood, you might be able to call it in. To do so, try what third-graders do when they want to get under each other’s skin: repeat everything the hen says in a loud, brash tone. If the hen comes, the gobbler will come too, though the tom will likely be last. In fact, the whole harem will likely come. When brood flocks (a matriarch hen and her offspring) split up in spring they shuffle to break up family groups. So the top hen isn’t running the show because they’re her offspring; the hen earned that top spot by fighting for it.

There is another strategy that might call in a hen-pecked tom. A few years back I spotted a strutting tom when hunting with Mark and Terry Drury. The gobbler was in a pasture with six hens. We set up in some trees 100 yards away. Mark and Terry positioned themselves 50 yards apart from each other. When the gobbler wouldn’t answer soft purring and yelping and the hens weren’t in a gossiping mood, Mark and Terry turned aggressive. The Drurys answered each other with loud and aggressive cutts and yelps. The hens began to fly from the field—they didn’t want to fight with those tough old broads. Soon the gobbler was all alone. It didn’t take the tom long to decide to check out those dominatrices.

Now, the Gents
According to a ground-breaking study done on the Welder Wildlife Refuge in Texas by C. Robert Watts decades ago, the social status of each gobbler is determined in its first year, and its social rank typically doesn’t change for the remainder of its life. Subdominant males do occasionally breed by finding hens that left a harem to find or to go to a nest. Lone subdominant gobblers or subdominant sibling groups will actually prowl around nesting areas looking for lone hens. Hens will sometimes breed with them. For this reason biologists classify wild turkeys as having a “promiscuous dominance hierarchy.” These are the scenarios hunters are typically mimicking.

Start by calling softly. A subdominant tom might not want to attract too much attention. Such a gobbler might not even come in if a dominant bird answers. If several toms gobble one after the other from the same location, you likely have a group of 2-year-old or jake siblings. Change the tone of your calls to whatever seems to be working. Some studies indicate that mature males can actually inhibit subdominant toms from producing the male-sex hormone, which can make them passive.

If you’re dealing with a gobbler that suddenly seems aggressive, say after 10 a.m., you likely have a dominant tom that has been left alone. You’re in the game then. Late in the breeding cycle, hens will typically leave a gobbler to go to nest in mid- to late-morning. Be aggressive, because if the tom calls in a hen, it’s game over; in fact, if you have a gobbler all fired up that suddenly quits gobbling, the tom has likely called in a real hen. If this happens, stay put for 30 minutes to be sure the gobbler isn’t sneaking in. But if the bird continues to ignore your calls, it is often best to just back out and come back another day. That tom will come to a call, but you’ll have to wait your turn.

Sometimes it helps to use a jake decoy with hens. Set up during mid-morning in an open area where you’ve seen gobblers strut. Dominant toms may respond by running in and attacking the jake decoy. Carry-Lite’s “Junior Semi-Strutting Jake” mimics a subdominant jake well. Feather Flex’s “Tru Position Breeders” decoys drop all decorum to really tick off a dominant gobbler. 
You can also use the social hierarchy to your advantage by mimicking a fight. Toms challenge each other by walking directly in front of each other while making a “fighting purr.” (Knight & Hale actually makes a call called the “Ultimate Fighting Purr” to mimic this sound.) If the challenge to fight is accepted, the other tom will also make the call. You can mimic all this with turkey wings and a friction call. Dominant toms may saunter in to reestablish dominance.
This season, listen for clues and then use the pecking order to your advantage. 

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