John Obst of McFarland, Wisconsin, saw a true woodland rarity in consecutive springs not long ago, and hopes he’ll witness it again each April as turkey season approaches.
What has Obst twice witnessed that most turkey hunters have never seen once?
A hen turkey in full strut.
Obst was hunting turkeys on a farm northwest of Madison, Wisconsin, when he called in a hen that seemed curious about his yelps. When the hen saw Obst’s hen decoy, it went into full strut. Obst is an experienced hunter, and has seen hens get aggressive a few times, but never before saw one do such a dead-on gobbler imitation.
The hen approached his decoy with its breast puffed out, tail feathers fully fanned, and wingtips dragging across the corn stubble as it strutted toward the decoy. And then the hen stayed in full strut. This was no three-second fluke where a bird simply forgets itself and slips out of character, as if to say, “Whoa! What was I thinking?”
No, this hen held that pose and attitude long enough for Obst to pick up his camera and photograph the bird as it strutted in front of the decoy, and then behind it before calming down and walking away. And no, the strutting hen didn’t have a beard.
Obst knew he had just witnessed a unique behavior; possibly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for even the most serious turkey hunters and birdwatchers.
When he went turkey hunting on the same farm a year later, however, lightning struck again. He didn’t use a decoy this time, and just sat quietly as a hen strolled past his field-side blind and slipped into the woods.
He waited a few minutes and then called with a string of yelps. The hen marched back out of the woods, this time packing attitude. The hen was in full strut and did its best gobbler imitation for a long time, clearly agitated.
After it finally cooled down, it settled to the ground and dusted itself in the dirt. Suddenly, however, the hen looked toward the fence line, and slinked back into the woods, no longer bold and brave. Seconds later, a gobbler peeked out where the hen had been looking, and Obst turned it into a “turkey dinner.”
Although Obst has no way to prove it, he thinks he saw the same hen twice. Both sexes can strut, but few hens do so. Most make their point with pecking and angry talk.
How rare is a strutting hen? No one in my network of hunting friends and acquaintances has seen one.
Hens that strut are usually triggered by a strong stimulus, such as aggressive behavior by another hen. The late Lovett Williams Jr. of Florida, perhaps the nation’s most esteemed wild-turkey biologist, wrote of strutting hens, and said it’s common for them to briefly fan their tail feathers while jousting with rivals.
A hen in full strut, however, fully fanned and dragging its wingtips like a gobbler is “extremely rare.” Williams wrote that he spent countless hours observing turkeys for over 50 years, and saw this behavior only three times.
Other biologists note that turkey poults strut as early as one day after hatching, and both sexes can strut. On a turkey-hunting forum, a hunter reported a strutting dominance display by an old hen when a young hen tried using its dust bowl in a sunny spot on a dirt road.
Others report hens trying to gobble when agitated, but their efforts sounded strained and higher-pitched than a tom’s gobble. Jim Heimler of Wisconsin reported a hen strutting around his decoy two straight mornings, stopping to gobble several times. “The more I yelped, the more agitated and aggressive she became, and finally attacked my decoy,” Heimler said.
Rich Baur of Mosinee, Wisconsin, saw a hen go into full strut after he yelped with a box call. “Every time I called, it puffed out its breast, fanned its tail and dropped its wings,” Baur said. “It strutted right up to my submissive-hen decoy, and stayed in full strut about 15 seconds and then calmed down. When I clucked again on the box call, it went back into full strut. It did that three times.”
Another Wisconsin hunter, Clarence Koch, saw a Merriam’s hen twice go into full strut and circle his hen decoy during a spring bowhunt in South Dakota. The strutting hen helped Koch call in a gobbler. After he arrowed the tom, the hen resumed strutting around the decoy.
Of course, the rarity of a strutting hen doesn’t diminish the impressive sight of a mature gobbler in full strut, especially when accompanied by a loud spit-and-drum sequence. Such scenes never get old.