Many years ago, when I was just beginning to hunt turkeys in the spring, I stood in awe one morning. I was in a bottomland forest in Mississippi and when the first bird gobbled before sunrise, the woods literally came alive with gobbling. If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced some of these mornings in your turkey hunting career, where birds gobble in every direction and it’s difficult to decide which way to go.
On this particular Mississippi morning, I distinctly remember thinking, every time one of these birds gobble, all the other birds do the same. Clearly, they must be letting each other know that they’re players in the breeding season. They are advertising their availability.
Years later, after much reading and research, I realized what I heard that morning was how turkeys should be structured across landscapes they inhabit. What I listened to that day was related to one component of the mating system of wild turkeys, which is their distribution during the breeding season. That brings us to the idea of an exploded lek and how understanding these leks and their function can make us better turkey hunters.
So, What’s a Lek?
Leks are simply groups of male birds or other critters that display for purposes of attracting females. There are two types of leks, and many hunters may be familiar with both without really knowing it. Many of us have seen prairie chickens or various grouse species in a lek, where males are within sight of each other and display for hens. The hens visit the lek, breed with a dominant male and then leave. But, wild turkeys use more of an exploded lek strategy, where toms (or groups of toms) are out of sight, but within earshot, of each other when they’re gobbling and displaying.
Each tom or group of toms maintains a lek, where they display while also moving about their home ranges displaying for any hens that may be available. Instead of having all males in an area at the lek simultaneously, you have “pockets” of toms scattered about the landscape.
This is an important distinction, because maintenance of these exploded leks is at least partially driven by gobbling. In other words, toms gobble not only to attract hens, but also to signal to other toms (on surrounding exploded leks) that they’re still around and competing for receptive hens. This competition maintains structure within turkey populations, as we discussed in a previous column detailing pecking orders and how they influence turkey populations.
What does this mean to a turkey hunter? Well, I suspect most turkey hunters would agree that harvesting a tom is important; the most important thing is being able to hear birds gobble. Personally, some of the best hunts I’ve ever had were on days where I never got close to harvesting a bird, but boy were birds gobbling!
Let’s look at how gobbling could be affected by the presence and maintenance of exploded leks, and how we as turkey hunters may adjust our strategies accordingly.
How exploded leks influence gobbling is unclear. But, if you think about it, toms have keen motivation to gobble when they’re hearing other toms gobble. Responding to other toms gobbling allows a bird to maintain social dominance within populations, while also letting hens know their location.
We have all experienced or been told of toms that go silent after hunting season begins. In some cases, these toms were disturbed by hunters and adopted a strategy of talking less. In other cases, toms may reduce gobbling because of a lack of competition from other toms. Stated differently, the exploded leks stop functioning as they originally did because some birds are taken by hunters, while other toms reduce gobbling in response to hunting pressure or disturbance.
The collective result is gobbling across a given parcel of land declines because remaining toms likely perceive little reward to gobbling, especially relative to the risk it brings via hunters and predators. Why gobble if your neighbor isn’t gobbling?
This creates a tricky situation for turkey hunters; so, what to do? In my eyes, the answer is simple. Recognize that toms do not gobble solely to attract hens. When gobbling slows down but you know that toms are still present, be patient. In the absence of gobbling, toms must use other strategies, such as moving about their ranges more or using subtle cues, such as drumming, to attract hens. Identify areas where toms can display or interact with hens and be patient.
We all long for those mornings when the woods are alive with gobbling, but for birds that use exploded leks, sometimes matters dictate that males talk less and take a different approach to secure mating opportunities with hens. It’s up to us to adjust accordingly.