Aging Turkeys, by the Numbers

  • Older gobblers aren’t always bigger, but their spurs are.
  • Keep an outdoor journal, like building a time machine.

By Jim Low

Spurs tell more about a turkey’s age than its weight or beard. Jim Low Photo

Math has never been my strong suit, but a recent trip down memory lane sent me reaching for pencil, paper and a calculator.  As I often do when a hunting season approaches, I pulled my outdoor journals off the shelf to refresh my memory about past turkey hunts.  Reading the vital statistics of gobblers that have fallen to me and friends got me wondering how old those birds were, and how their ages related to their weight, beard length and spur size.

Turkey biologists learned long ago that the most reliable indicator of a gobbler’s age is spur length.  A bird with spurs measuring less than half an inch are sure to be jakes.  Nine times out of 10, if a bird’s spurs are ½ to 7/8 inches long and straight, with relatively blunt ends, it is 2 years old.  Spur growth slows down after that, making it difficult to separate 2- and 3-year-olds.  Birds with slightly pointier, curved spurs measuring 1 to 1½ inches long can be either 2 or 3 years old.  If you bag a gobbler with needle-sharp, scimitar-shaped spurs longer than 1½ inches, you’ve got a bird that has survived at least four summers and winters.

Curious how my birds stacked up, I made a table listing these characteristics for the 21 gobblers that I took the trouble to record in detail.  Nine had spurs long enough (averaging 1¼ inches) to fall into the 2- to 3-year-old cohort.  Seven were 2 years old, with spurs averaging eight-tenths of an inch.  The remaining four, and four were jakes, with mere nubs for spurs.

The older gobblers’ beards averaged 10.1 inches, compared to 10 inches for 2-year-olds.  This is leaving out one gobbler that had 1-3/16-inch spurs and no beard at all, only a patch of thick, dark skin where a beard should have been.  Also, I only counted the longest of three beards sported by a 2-year-old killed last year.  If you include the two shorter ones, the 2-year-old birds average beard length climbs to an impressive 11.9 inches.

The longest spurs among the older toms measured 1-3/8 inches.  They had pronounced curves and were sharp enough to be dangerous, but their length leaves little doubt that I have never killed a truly old bird.  The heaviest gobbler in my records was a 2-year-old that had 7/8-inch spurs and tipped the scales at 26.5 pounds.  Overall, the two 3-year-olds were heavier than the deuces, but only by 14 ounces.  The four jakes (yearling males) averaged 14.75 pounds.  The honors for longest single beard – 11.5 inches – also went to a 2 to 3-year-old gobbler.  But on average, the older gobblers’ beards were virtually identical length.  All this proves the rule that weight and beard length are not reliable measures of age.

Seeing how gobblers bulk up between one and three years of age, you might expect older birds to outweigh 2-year-olds by a bigger margin.  The fact that they don’t is probably because the older, more dominant gobblers have less time to eat while they are busy kicking 2-year-old toms’ butts and chasing hens.  Those same gobblers likely weigh more in the fall, after they have time to bulk up on acorns.

Delving into journal entries reminded me how written records bring memories to life like nothing else, including pictures.  Details that make days afield special quickly slip away unless captured while they are still fresh in our minds.  This hollows out our recollections.  If you don’t keep a journal, consider starting.  It doesn’t have to be time consuming.  I use 6- by 8-inch books with blank, lined pages.  They are available in most book stores or online for next to nothing.  One lasts me two to four years, depending on how much time I spend outdoors.  I keep the current one on my bedside table and make entries before going to sleep.  Once you establish the routine, it’s automatic.

Most of what I record is factual – when and where I went, who was with me, what we caught, killed and saw, weather and habitat conditions and animal behavior.  But I also include thoughts, feelings and anecdotes, like when someone’s dog made a spectacular retrieve or knocked his new Citori into 10 feet of water.

The accumulated knowledge has practical uses, but I expect the real payoff to come years from now, when I no longer can do the things I love most.  Then, I will be able to sit by the fire, reliving my outdoor life.  If I’m lucky, there will be some tykes to regale with tales from my storied past.