Most the time it is easy to tell the difference between male and female turkeys, but sometimes it is strangely difficult. Bearded hens can make things more complicated but a lot more can happen that makes it even harder to tell the difference between a hen and a gobbler.

People often ask, what percentage of hens have beards? The answer should be simple but data from researchers varies greatly between 3% and 20%. The most commonly accepted statistic I have found is around 10% of hens have beards. And hen beards tend to be shorter, thinner, and less pronounced than the beard of tom. However, what normally happens is not what always happens.

Hens and toms can share a lot of traits they aren’t supposed to have at times. Hens can have plumage similar to gobblers at times. Gobblers can have no spurs, lighter colors, and different head colorings. Some hens can be larger than normal and some toms can be smaller than usual.

At the end of the day some turkeys can be so mix-matched that it is not possible for even a trained hunter to properly identify them in the field, even if they have them in hand.  You may think I’m joking, but occasionally a bird comes along that even biologists cannot identify without checking its reproductive parts.

The big thing hunters need to know is what are the laws for taking a bird. If a turkey is legal and you want to take it, you probably should. People often say that killing a bearded hen is the same as killing a whole hatch of poults. But the truth is that predation and winter kill more turkeys than anything else.

That bearded hen may get eaten by a coyote by the end of the day. The whole hatch may never last a week if foxes and crows find it. Very few of those birds will live long enough to see the winter and fewer still will survive to breed. Nature consumes many of the turkeys that hunters think they are saving.

But the bottom line is this, if as an seasoned turkey hunter you have come to a point where you prefer to pass on bearded hens for the chance it may help the population then you should. If you’ve never taken a turkey before and you see a legal bird, and you want to take it, you should. Each hunter needs to follow their heart and conscience, not the collective input of Facebook groups. 

Listen to the podcast episode for much more!