Wild Turkey Identification 101
Learn about wild turkeys so you can record accurate observations
for the TWRA Turkey Observation Survey
Turkey Basics-Gobblers and Hens
Let’s begin with the basics of distinguishing male wild turkeys (gobblers) from females (hens). Gobblers are larger-bodied birds, with a darker coloration, at times appearing almost black. In bright sunlight, their feathers cast a brilliant bronze or metallic iridescence. Gobblers have a featherless, red head (sometimes with blue and white coloring, too) with prominent wattle and fleshy, red growths (called caruncles) on their neck. They also have a “beard”—a tuft of black, hair-like strands—protruding from their chest. On adult gobblers (called toms), the beard can be 7-9 inches or more in length, but on young gobblers (called jakes) the beard is <6 inches long. Typically, gobblers hang out away from hens during the summer since they take no part in raising young.
Hens are more brown in coloration and smaller in size than gobblers. They have a head that is more blue-gray in appearance, often with feathers continuing up the back of the head. Occasionally hens will have a beard, but it is thinner than on gobblers and is quite often kinked. Hens can also have some feather iridescence, but not to the same extent as gobblers.
How many gobblers and hens do you see in this picture?
2 gobblers (both jakes, note the larger size, less-feathered red heads, and tiny stubble of a beard protruding from the chest of the jake on the right), 4 hens (one mostly hidden behind a jake, but you still can clearly see the typical head of a hen turkey poking out), 1 unknown. If we were here in person live, the birds would move about and we could probably determine that the unknown is another jake, but given what we can see in this photo, it’s best to just call this partially obstructed bird an unknown.
Poult Age Classes
Poults develop very quickly (they must in order not to be eaten!) and feather types, appearance, and body size change rapidly as they age. Based on these characteristics, we can estimate the age of poults. For simplicity, we divide poults into three age classes.
1 week old or younger. Poults that are no more than about a week old are still covered with downy feathers and are very small (<5-6 inches tall). They look like little puff balls about the size of your fist.
2-5 weeks old. Poults in this class have grown longer wing feathers, but still are mostly covered with downy feathers on their body and still lack long tail feathers. They are about 6-10 inches tall, similar in size to a Blue Jay. In appearance they look to be all wings (which is good because it means now they can fly into low trees to escape ground predators). Poults on the older end of this age class will have started to grow some juvenile plumage on their bodies, but still have short tail feathers.
6-8 weeks or older. Poults early in this stage still have some down feathers occurring on the neck and head, but their body is covered with juvenile type contour feathers. They have visible tail feathers now, black-and-white barred wing feathers are emerging, and they stand about 10-12 inches tall, similar in size to a crow or a chicken. By about 8 weeks of age, poults are beginning to grow new “adult” looking body feathers and will have a mixture of juvenile feathers and adult feathers on their body. They are about half the size of the hen and will continue to grow to almost the same size as the hen by the end of the summer.
Because they are very similar in size, late in the summer it can be very challenging to determine if a group of similar sized turkeys is a flock of hens without poults or a hen and her older-age-class brood. If you’re unsure, it’s best to mark them as unknowns.
Sometimes you will see multiple hens and their combined broods. When this happens, often there will be poults of different age classes in the same brood flock.