Hunters can yelp, cackle, kee-kee and cutt when spring gobbler season opens Saturday. But this year, simply talking turkey may not be enough.
Mating, nesting and hatching are expected to follow their usual seasonal schedules. But experts say the long winter and recent cold snap may muzzle much of the gobbling. With the birds keeping their mouths shut, aggressive calling may seem unnatural to wary toms.
"Unlike last year's warm early spring weather, which triggered an early start to gobbling, this year's cooler-than-normal March and early April have suppressed gobbling activity," said Pennsylvania Game Commission wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena, in a spring gobbler forecast she generally described as "promising."
"Our research has shown that although weather affects gobbling, it does not affect the onset of egg laying by hen turkeys," Casalena said. "Rather, photoperiod, the amount of daylight, triggers it."
After the Dec. 22 winter solstice, days grow progressively longer. The increase in lighted hours in February and early March stimulates the pituitary gland of wild turkey hens, causing them to ovulate.
Breeding activity begins in early March, but fertilization isn't immediate. Hens gather and store active sperm from a variety of gobblers outside their ovaries. The oviduct containment lasts 56 days in domestic turkeys -- there's been no conclusive study of delayed fertilization among wild turkeys.
Casalena said spring gobbler season is intentionally scheduled to open around the peak of nest incubation to minimize hen disturbance and the number of mistaken kills.
Over a period of about two weeks, hens will lay a clutch of about a dozen eggs, leaving the nest immediately after each egg is laid. Egg mortality is high, and they don't immediately begin to incubate.
When the clutch is fully laid, the hen settles on the nest for some 20 hours per day, raising their temperature and prompting incubation. The eggs hatch together in 26 to 28 days.
"Nesting hens are less prone to come to a hunter's call and abandon their nests," Casalena said. "... The arrival of warmer temperatures will bring more gobbling activity, and just in time for the spring turkey season."
Bob Eriksen, a New Jersey-based biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, said hunters will have to adapt to a quieter hunt, at least early in the season.
"What you may see is some remnant of winter flocks that have not broken up efficiently yet," he said. "In some situations you might see two to four gobblers with a dozen hens or so. But that will be the exception, not the rule."
Wind and rain, as well as unseasonably warm or cold temperatures, typically impacts gobbling. A quieter mating season puts the jakes at a biological disadvantage. With less calling going on, the younger birds may have trouble finding hens, while veteran longbeards rely on experience to find willing females.
"Those older gobblers may not gobble, but they know were to find hens," Eriksen said. "If you notice in your pre-season scouting a gobbler displaying in an area, remember the spot. Even if you don't hear a gobbler in the morning [during a hunt], you may want to revisit that spot because the gobbler may return. If you have patience and stick it out, it may pay off."
The gobblers may not be gobbling, but the hens will be listening. During a quiet early season such as this, Eriksen said, a counter-strategy is to cackle aggressively in an attempt to annoy a dominant hen. When she approaches in a jealous rage, the tom may follow.
Casalena said most gobblers made it through the winter well, relying on ample mast everywhere except southwestern Pennsylvania.
With that in mind, this year's pre-season scouting may be more important than ever.
"Scouting improves hunters' chances, especially if they line up multiple locations for the spring season," she said. "Learning several gobblers' favorite strutting areas also is helpful for determining the best in-season set-up. This requires early-morning preseason scouting, but the potential in-season reward is worth it."
Leave the calls at home while scouting.
"It will educate birds and cause them to be less inclined to respond to the early-morning calls of in-season hunters," Casalena said.