Gobblers, hens and jakes? Springtime turkey season in Delaware

May 9, 2014

It’s springtime gobbler season here in Delaware. Wild turkeys. The males are the gobblers, the females are the hens, the young males are the jakes.

Gage Joseph and his dad, Clay, hunted on a farm the family leases near Ellendale last Thursday. Seated quietly in a woods blind, Clay had killed a gobbler the week before. Seeing the bird his dad brought home, Gage, 8, decided he wanted one too.

“The first morning we saw them, but we couldn’t get them close enough. Next morning, three big gobblers came,” said Clay. “Gage shot the biggest one, 20-gauge shotgun. The turkey weighed 22 pounds, had a 10.5-inch beard and 1.5-inch spurs.”

The length of the beard and the spurs, according to charts designed to tell such things, indicates Gage’s turkey was probably a 3-year old. That’s the average age of a turkey in the wild. The beards are bristle-like hairs that hang down from the turkey’s chest. All gobblers have them, and most of the jakes too. The more mature birds have longer beards and sometimes multiple beards. The beards on jakes, according to what I’ve been reading, can be in the five-inch range.

Beards of 10 inches and more are not unusual on gobblers. The longest recorded beard I could find in internet research was 18.5 inches on a turkey killed in Texas. But that’s Texas; everything seems to be bigger in Texas. Hens can also have beards, which can make things confusing. But the gobblers are bigger show-offs, with their tails fanned out and more colorful. When hunters are making sounds like a hen in mating season, the gobblers get real strutty, which makes picking them out pretty easy. (A recent press release from Delaware’s Division of Fish and Wildlife emphasizes: “Do not imitate the male gobbling call trying to attract another gobbler.”) But nobody’s saying turkey hunting is easy. Turkeys have excellent eyesight, and the slightest motion can send them packing.

The wild turkey, according to the press release, remains one of Delaware’s top restoration successes after being on the verge of extinction by the early 20th century. In the early 1980s, the Division of Fish and Wildlife partnered with the Delaware chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation to re-establish a wild turkey population in the state. By 1991, the population had grown large enough to permit opening a wild turkey hunting season, and the big birds continue to thrive and multiply.

In 2013, 614 birds were harvested, the second-highest season harvest on record. Several new achievements marked that season. “For the first time, turkeys were reported as harvested on the C&D Canal Conservation Area, which is a good indicator of how abundant and widespread our turkey population has become,” said wildlife biologist Matt DiBona. He also noted 2013 was the first year a bird was harvested using a muzzleloader. Several birds with multiple beards - a relatively rare occurrence in Delaware’s wild turkey population - were harvested, including two birds with six beards each, DiBona added. The 2014 Delaware spring turkey hunting season runs through Saturday, May 10. Hunting hours are from a half-hour before sunrise until 1 p.m.

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