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Wild Turkeys Dueling Over Breeding Rights

Tes Randle Jolly | Originally published in GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

turkeys in the field

The old adage, “All’s fair in love and war,” came to mind when this author recently captured a particularly brutal confrontation between two hook-spurred longbeards. Battles for breeding rights typically call to mind grunting, snot-slinging, antler crashing shoving matches between bucks or bulls. However, America’s largest game bird, the wild turkey gobbler, is no wimp when it comes to a throw-down against a rival for spring breeding rights and territory.

The gobbler fight pictured in this article took place in Alabama on a sunny March afternoon when a dominant gobbler was displaying for hens as they fed in a field of BioLogic Clover Plus. Wild turkey flocks within the area usually already have their pecking order settled as winter winds down and hen and gobbler flocks rejoin prior to the spring breeding season. The appearance of the intruding gobbler, half strut “mean-walking” onto the field, wattles blazing fiery blood red, signaled a serious challenge. The aggressive behavior sparked an immediate and determined reaction from the boss bird.

The gobblers quickly moved closer, assuming threatening and imposing postures. Obviously, size and intimidation matter in wild turkey skirmishes. Each held its head stretched high with wings open wide and their feather tips dragging the ground. Like a couple of circling cage-fighters sizing each other up in a stare-down, the gobblers’ intense and menacing “facial expressions” conveyed an overall message that the other bird was about to experience a large dose of whoop-a@!. 

The puff, bluff and hard stares lasted less than a minute. Suddenly the boss bird’s powerful wings launched it into a deadly, needle-pointed spur attack directed at the intruder’s breast, knocking the bird off its feet.

Small droplets of blood oozing onto feathers confirmed a direct hit. The battle was on. Fight sounds filled the once peaceful scene. Angry purrs, the flapping of aerial wing flogging and body slamming spur jabs sent feathers and dirt flying through the air. One gobbler came down straddled on the other’s back like a rodeo rider breaking a bucking bronco.

fighting turkeys

Full body contact transitioned into more targeted strategies as the battle intensified. Necks entwined, the gobblers maneuvered in a downward motion in an effort to pull the other down.

The fight really got dirty when the birds separated and took deadly aim with sharp beaks, stabbing at eyes and piercing vulnerable head and neck skin. Both birds managed to bloody the opponents skull cap and pinch/pull swollen caruncles. Ouch!

It was amazing (and sometimes painful) to witness the various strategic behaviors the birds exhibited in their efforts to dominate. Multiple times one gobbler approached the other from behind, stretched its neck and used its head to push down hard on the other birds head.

In addition to inflicting serious bodily harm, throwing the opponent off balance through pushing, pulling, pinching and/or shoving appeared to be a key goal in gobbler battles. Often, a fight ends when one bird is thrown badly off balance. If you’ve witnessed a serious gobbler fight you’ve likely seen birds lock beaks in a painful and bizarre looking manner. If not, picture head swallowing.

The fight appeared to be a draw for a couple of minutes as the panting birds, buried to the eyeballs in each other’s mouths, stood absolutely still on tiptoes with breasts pressed tightly together. Interestingly, the photo sequences revealed that the bird who had the advantage at a given moment usually had its tail tilted up and fanned while its opponent held its tail pointed toward the ground.

The boss gobbler maintained a relentless offense and eventually prevailed, sending the bleeding, mouth-sore rival running for cover. The triumphant, though bloodied and panting boss gobbler, resumed where he’d left off, strutting splendidly, minus some feathers, amid the hen flock in the late day sun.

fighting turkeys

Whispering a thanks to Our Creator for this special opportunity to capture such a dramatic event in Nature, I smiled and pondered. Who was more breathless and spent, me or the gobblers?! Wild turkey fights are not only breathtaking avian exhibitions, but a glimpse of Nature at its most fundamental level - that the strongest, (wild turkeys in this case), will fight to ensure the survival of its species, no holds barred.

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