Male vs. Female Turkeys: What’s the Difference?

Male vs female turkeys

When looking at male and female turkeys, the differences can be quite striking. That said, it’s not just their looks that set them apart; there’s a whole range of traits that make each gender unique in its own way.

Male turkeys stand out with their colorful plumage and heads, long beards, and spurs. They gobble loudly and are typically more aggressive. Meanwhile, female turkeys are smaller, with more muted feathers and heads. They’re often quieter and focus on caring for their young.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what makes male and female turkeys different. From their physical differences to their unique behaviors and roles, there’s a lot to learn about these birds.

Summary of Male vs. Female Turkeys

Male Turkeys
Female Turkeys
Male turkey isolated on white backgroundFemale turkey isolated on white background
39–49 in (99–124.4 cm)
30–37 in (76.2–94 cm)
11–24 lbs (5–10.8 kg)
5–12 lbs (2.2–5.4 kg)
Color and Plumage:
More colorful with iridescent feathers; heads display a mix of red, white, and blue coloring
Color and Plumage:
Less colorful, generally duller feathers; lack the vibrant head coloring
Distinctive Features:
Larger and more pronounced snood and wattle, along with the presence of spurs and a long beard
Distinctive Features:
Smaller snood and wattle; lack spurs; beards are rare and if present, are much shorter
Aggressive and territorial
More social and cooperative
Loud gobbling sounds
Quieter clucks and yelps
Roaming Patterns:
Roam in smaller groups or alone
Roaming Patterns:
Often found in larger groups
Reproductive Roles:
Fertilize eggs
Reproductive Roles:
Lay eggs and incubate them
Parenting Roles:
Do not participate in nurturing the young
Parenting Roles:
Take care of the young, leading and teaching them

Key Differences Between Male and Female Turkeys

Male and female turkeys may seem easy to distinguish due to their apparent differences, but there’s more to discover. Here are some key distinctions between them.

1. Physical Characteristics

Male turkey toms and female turkey hen in the wild

Male and female turkeys have distinct physical characteristics based on their gender, showing what’s called sexual dimorphism. Below are the main physical traits that help tell them apart.

Size and Weight

Male turkeys are generally larger than hens, typically measuring around 39 to 49 inches in length. They also weigh more, typically falling between 11 and 24 pounds.

This larger size and greater weight are not just for show; they play a crucial role in their mating displays and in establishing dominance within their groups.

On the other hand, female turkeys are smaller and lighter. They usually measure around 30 to 37 inches in length and weigh between 5 and 12 pounds.

Color and Plumage

Toms are known for their vibrant and colorful appearance. In the sunlight, their feathers can look almost like they’re sparkling, showing off shades of green and bronze.

They also feature black-tipped feathers on their breasts and sides. Plus, their heads are a mix of red, white, and blue, which makes them even more eye-catching.

Meanwhile, hens have a more subdued look. Their feathers are generally less shiny and are typically lighter in color, often displaying shades of brown or bronze.

Moreover, female turkeys have brown-tipped feathers in the same areas where males have black-tipped ones. Their heads are also more plain, without the bright colors you see on males.

Their more muted colors help them blend in with their surroundings, which is very handy for staying safe from predators and taking care of their nests.

Distinctive Features

Toms are the show-offs of the turkey world. One of their most noticeable features is their long snood, which is the fleshy bit that hangs over their beak.

They also have big, dangly wattles on their necks, which are more obvious compared to females.

But what really sets male turkeys apart are their spurs – these are sharp, spike-like projections on their legs, and only the males have them.

Now, when it comes to female turkeys, they’re more on the subtle side. Compared to males, their wattles and snoods are far smaller and less noticeable. Also, they don’t have spurs like males do.

Further, both males and females have these bumpy things on their heads called caruncles, but again, they’re bigger and more obvious in males.

And while both genders can have a beard, it’s way more common and longer in males.

Fun Fact: Hens actually prefer males with longer snoods. Research suggests that a longer snood might indicate a healthier turkey with fewer parasites and better genetics.

So, in the turkey world, it seems the longer the snood, the better the chances of winning over a mate!

2. Behavioral Differences

A wild male turkey with hens

Male turkeys are known for their territorial and often aggressive behavior, especially during the breeding season. They engage in dominance displays to attract females and establish their hierarchy among other males.

This includes fanning their impressive tail feathers, puffing up their bodies, and strutting around to show off their size and strength.

Outside of the mating season, though, toms usually like to keep to themselves or hang out in small groups.

In contrast, female turkeys are generally less aggressive than males. They’re not into all the boasting that males do. Their focus is on looking after their eggs and babies, known as poults.

They’re very cautious and sneaky when they’re nesting to keep their babies safe from predators. Hens also tend to form larger groups, particularly when they are not nesting.

3. Sounds

Toms are famous for their gobbling. This isn’t just any sound; it’s a loud, rapid gurgling noise that they use to attract female turkeys and to let other males know they’re around.

I experienced this personally when I joined a game hunter friend of mine on one of his hunting trips. Before we set off on our trip, he prepped me by sharing how this gobble is a key indicator he listens for in the wild.

That was spring when we set off on that trip, and true enough, we were really able to hear these gobbles everywhere when we were out in the woods. We used these sounds as a signal to locate the male turkeys.

Meanwhile, female turkeys have a different approach. They don’t gobble like the males. Instead, they make softer clucking sounds and short yelps.

Here’s a video of a hen vocalizing so you can hear these sounds for yourself:

Live Hen Turkey Yelping, Clucking and Cutting!

4. Roaming Patterns

In the wild, male and female turkeys have distinct roaming patterns, which are especially noticeable during different seasons and as they age.

During the colder months, adult male turkeys often form their own separate groups, known as posses. These male groups typically keep to themselves and rarely mix with the hens outside of the breeding season.

Meanwhile, hens and younger birds, including juveniles, tend to stick together. This grouping provides safety in numbers and makes it easier for them to find food during the tougher winter months.

By the time early spring rolls around, the young male turkeys, who are about a year old, begin to change their social patterns.

They start to leave the female-dominated groups and gradually begin to join the older males in their posses.

5. Differences in Roles

Female turkey mother caring for her babies

Male turkeys are primarily focused on mating. They are polygamous, which means they mate with multiple females during the breeding season.

Unlike many bird species, male turkeys don’t provide any parental care. After mating, they leave in search of other females, as their role in reproduction is solely to fertilize the eggs.

On the other hand, hens have a more nurturing role. Their primary responsibility is to lay and incubate eggs.

Once the eggs hatch, the hens take on the role of caring for and protecting the young turkeys. This includes teaching them how to find food, avoid predators, and navigate their environment.

6. Other Differences

Besides the differences already mentioned above, male and female turkeys also have other unique traits.

One notable difference is in how they respond to danger. Both can fly and run, but they don’t always choose the same escape plan. Female turkeys are more likely to take flight when they sense danger.

Males, however, are more inclined to run, possibly due to their larger size and less agile nature when it comes to flying.

Another difference between males and females is how long they live. On average, hens live for about three years, while toms have a slightly longer lifespan of around four years.

This difference in lifespan has a lot to do with the risks they face. Predation is a bigger problem for hens, especially when they are nesting. Since hens typically nest on the ground, they are more exposed to predators.

Toms, being less involved in nesting and often roosting in trees, are less susceptible to such dangers.

How to Tell Female and Male Turkeys Apart

Two toms and one turkey hen in nature

When you’re trying to figure out if a turkey is male or female, the first thing to look at is the color of their feathers.

Toms often have black-tipped feathers on their breasts and sides, while hens typically have brown-tipped feathers in those same areas.

Another clear indicator is the turkey’s head; males have colorful, bald heads, often showing red, white, and blue, while females have less colorful heads with more feathers.

Moreover, males have sharp spurs on their legs, which females usually lack. The presence of a beard-like cluster of feathers on the chest is also more common and pronounced in males.

Lastly, listening to their sounds can be a giveaway; if you hear a turkey gobbling, you’re probably looking at a male, as this vocalization is unique to them.

Fun Fact: Did you know you can tell a turkey’s sex and age from its droppings? Male turkeys leave J-shaped droppings, while hens have spiral-shaped ones. Plus, the bigger the droppings, the older the turkey.

Male vs. Female Baby Turkeys

Male and female baby turkeys sitting on grass

Figuring out if baby turkeys are male or female can be done using a method called vent sexing.

This means looking at the vent opening, which is right under the tail between the bird’s legs. Male poults usually have a bump on their vent, while females have a vent that’s more flat.

As the poults grow, their behavior can also give clues about their gender. Around three weeks old, male poults, also known as jakes, may start to strut.

This involves fanning their tail feathers, dropping their wings, and puffing up their bodies to look bigger. Female poults, in contrast, typically don’t strut at this young age.

Moreover, as jakes get older, their caruncles and heads start to show bright colors like red, blue, or even purple, especially when they strut.

Male poults also tend to be more territorial and aggressive toward other birds. When one starts strutting, it’s common for the others to join in as they figure out their pecking order.

Pro Tip: When trying to figure out if a poult is male or female, gently pick it up while keeping its wings down with one hand.

As you lift it, observe its legs. If the legs dangle down, it’s likely a female poult. If the legs are tucked up into its chest, you’re probably holding a male.

Frequently Asked Questions

Wild turkeys standing in nature

Do Male Turkeys Taste Any Different Than Females?

There isn’t much difference in taste between male and female turkeys. What matters more is the turkey’s age and how it’s been raised and prepared.

Both male and female turkeys are used in commercial turkey production, and you’re likely to enjoy a delicious meal regardless of the turkey’s gender.

Are Female Turkeys More Aggressive Than Males?

While female turkeys can show aggression, particularly when defending their nests or young, it’s the males that are typically more visibly aggressive.

Toms are known for their dominant displays, like puffing up feathers and fanning tails, to establish territory and attract mates.

Do Male and Female Turkeys Poop Differently?

Yes, male and female turkeys do poop differently. Toms produce droppings that are typically J-shaped.

Meanwhile, hens have droppings that are more spiral or clump-shaped. This difference is due to the distinct shapes of their cloacas.

As we’ve explored the differences between male and female turkeys, what surprises you the most? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

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