How Old Is My Turkey?

Surely one of the things that causes most head scratching among turkey hunters is the question of how old a particular gobbler is. Jakes are easy to identify by their short beards and stubby spurs. However, once a gobbler’s beard grows beyond 6 or 7 inches and the spurs develop a conical shape, aging a tom becomes more difficult.

There is an answer to this perennial question, though.

Forget about beard length. Beards--short, long, thick, thin, single and multiple – are fun to look at and brag about, but they reveal nothing about a bird’s age. Huge, old gobblers sometimes sport dinky beards, and a 2-year-old can have a 12-incher. Beards aren’t even reliable indicators of sex. Between 10 and 20 percent of all hens have beards, according to some estimates.

Furthermore, I can attest that some gobblers don’t have beards at all. Two years ago, I called in a nice 22 1/2-pound tom for my son-in-law and experienced a moment of panic when I couldn’t find a beard anywhere. He had spurs in excess of 1 inch, vivid red wattles and a bright white head, and he had been gobbling and strutting up a storm before Brett shot him. But when we plucked him later we found only a dark, thickened patch of skin on his breast where his beard should have been. He was still a legal bird, since the Wildlife Code says you can take a “male turkey or turkey with visible beard.” Still mighty puzzling, though.

But getting back to gobbler age, spurs are the key. Their length and shape are closely related to age. Way back in 1975, the Conservation Department developed an index for determining gobbler age according to spur length. If your bird’s spurs are ½-inch or shorter with rounded tips, your bird is a jake--a one-year-old. If the spurs are between 1/2 and 7/8 inches long and straight, with a blunt tip, you’ve got a 2-year-old bird. Slightly curved, pointed spurs between 1 and 1 1/2 inches long indicate a 2- or 3-year-old gobbler. If the spurs are more curved, more than 1 1/2 inches long and sharp at the tips, the bird is at least 4 years old.

The owner of this spur was between 2 and 3 years old. Note the slight curvature, length under 1 1/2 inches and pointed, but not sharp, tip.

Beyond that, feel free to say your turkey is any age you think your audience will believe.

These guidelines are for spring turkeys. Fall gobblers have had six months or more to add to their spur length, so the break-off points must be adjusted accordingly.

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Conservation makes Missouri a great place to hunt and fish.