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Upland Game Identification

A Basic Guide for Aging and Sexing the Bird in Your Hand

Photo of Species

Wild Turkey

North Dakota turkey hunters have the potential to participate in two different seasons, depending on luck in the license lottery drawings. The spring hunt is for males only, while during the fall season both male and female turkeys are legal game.

In the spring, it is relatively easy to distinguish males from females. Gobblers exhibit bright red wattles (engorged skin below the chin) and light blue cheek patches. When a gobbler reacts to an imitation call from a hen turkey, fanning its tail and breaking into a stupefied dance, there should be no doubt as to the identity of the bird you see over your shotgun sights.

Photo of a male turkey
Male turkey. Breast feathers are all black. Since this photo was taken in March, bright red wattles are starting to appear. These become more evident through spring breeding season, but generally fade away by fall.

The breeding colors and actions of spring are not so obvious as fall arrives, but if you take time (if there is time) to study your quarry, you can still usually tell the males from the females. Fall turkeys are often found in flocks. The biggest birds in a flock are generally adult males. However, if you run across a hen with her brood, size might not be the best indicator of sex. In addition, if you encounter a single bird, you have no basis for size comparison.

Still, sex identification of turkeys is relatively simple if the bird is close enough and you have a second or two to examine it.

Breast feathers on male turkeys, both juveniles and adults, are all black year round, with one exception. In the fall, if a juvenile male turkey hasn't gone through postjuvenal molt, its breast feathers may resemble those of a female (black with a buff/tan outer edge), Tripp said.

Tripp also says it's important for hunters to send in the breast feathers from the immediate area of the breast bone. Feathers off to either side could still be juvenile feathers, and therefore look like those of a female. The postjuvenal molt starts at the breast bone and progresses outward, Tripp said. If the turkey you see appears to be all black, it's a male.

Breast feathers on female turkeys have a tan or light brown band on the outside edge, and the rest of the feather is not as dark as that of a male. A photo in this section shows male and female breast feathers side-by-side, and the difference is fairly obvious. Combined with the rest of the feathers on the breast, a female turkey appears lighter in color than a male.

Photo of turkey breast feathers
Individual breast feathers from male and female turkeys. The two hen feathers on the left are more dusty colored and exhibit an obvious buff or tan-colored band on the outer edge. The two male feathers on the right are all black and show a glossy sheen from light bouncing off them.

In good light conditions, the color difference between males and females is readily visible. If you look at enough turkeys, you can probably tell the difference at any time during legal shooting hours.

Adult male turkeys generally exhibit a long "beard" growing out of the center of their chest.

The beard on a juvenile male is extremely short. In fact, Tripp says, most of the time in the fall you can't even see it until you clean the bird. The beard on a juvenile male will stick out slightly by its first spring. Female turkeys generally don't have beards, but some, like the one in the photo at the begining of this section, do.

The best way to tell if a turkey is an adult or juvenile bird is the same as for sharptails, ruffed grouse, partridge and sage grouse. You need to examine the tips of the outer two primary wing feathers. The juvenile feathers will be somewhat pointed and have fraying around the edges. Adult primaries are more rounded and have smooth edges.

Photo of turkey wing tips
Since turkey wing feathers are too big to fit in the envelopes the Department provides to hunter, hunters are asked to send in just the tips of the outer three primary wing feathers. The frayed ends on the ninth and 10th primaries on the wing at left indicate these feathers came from a juvenile bird. Smooth, more rounded tips on the feathers at right mean these feathers came from an adult.

Also note the size difference between the junvenile and adult feathers.

In addition, juvenile wing primaries are more speckled than those of adults. These same characteristics should hold true for males in the spring, when birds hatched the previous summer are nearly a year old.

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