Can a Turkey’s Age be Determined by Beard and Spur?



Monterey Rio Turkeys_186_8661

Rio Grande turkeys from Monterey (photo by Carrie Wilson)

Turkey identification
Question: I am fairly new to turkey hunting and hear everyone always referring to their birds by their beards and spurs. Can wild turkeys be aged based on these trophy characteristics? (Jim C., Modesto)

Answer: Yes and no. There is no absolute standard for identifying a wild turkey’s age, but there are some general guidelines that can be used to provide fairly reliable estimates.

While precisely determining a turkey’s age in years may be difficult, there is a surefire method for distinguishing between adults and juveniles using the last two primary flight feathers. In juvenile birds the feathers will be sharp at the ends. By the time the bird reaches maturity at one year of age, it will molt and the two sharp feathers will be replaced by more rounded ones.

Beyond this, beard and spur length can be used to estimate a bird’s age, but unfortunately, it’s not an exact method. Variables such as subspecies, environmental conditions, and possibly nutrition can alter the length of both the beard and the spur, resulting in a misrepresentation of the bird’s age.

In terms of beards, the general rule of thumb is the longer the beard, the older the bird. But, while a jake (juvenile) will not have a 10-inch beard, a four-year-old turkey may have a short beard due to any number of conditions. If the turkey is in “rough” vegetation, the beard may wear away on the ground more easily when it grows long. If a turkey has long legs, the beard will be able to grow longer before it reaches the ground, where it will naturally face wear and tear. The fact that the beard may have been altered at any time by environmental or circumstantial conditions prevents biologists from using this method as an accurate way of measuring a turkey’s age.

Spur length can also be used to estimate a bird’s age although, like beards, spurs can also wear down. Spur length does tend to be slightly more reliable than beard length, however, because they do not wear as easily.

While both of these methods are not entirely precise, they can provide an approximate age range. These estimates are not reliable for turkeys older than about three or four years though.


Freediving for horseneck (gaper) clams?
Question: I’m an avid free diver and spear fisherman, as well as a frequent clammer. While diving for crabs recently, I noticed a number of enormous clam siphons in the silty mud bottom in 4-8 feet of water. Having previously dug for horseneck clams (Tresus capax) on a number of occasions, it was clear to me that these were horseneck siphons, or “shows”. These clams are all well below the low tide line and would thus be impossible to dig in the traditional way. Would it be legal for me to harvest these clams using a homemade PVC “clam gun” to excavate the mud in which they are encased? Looking at the regulations pertaining to horseneck clams, underwater harvest is neither specifically permitted nor forbidden. (Carter J.)

Answer: Yes, you can take clams underwater using a “clam gun” as long as you are free diving. The use of SCUBA is prohibited for the take of clams north of Yankee Point in Monterey County. SCUBA can be used south of Yankee Point. You don’t say where you plan to dive for clams, but you may like to know that there are gaper clams south of Yankee Point.

Here’s what the regulations say:

Invertebrates
29.05. GENERAL.
(d) In all ocean waters skin and Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) divers may take invertebrates as provided in this article except that in all ocean waters north of Yankee Point (Monterey Co.), SCUBA may be used only to take sea urchins, rock scallops and crabs of the genus Cancer. For the purpose of this section, breathing tubes (snorkels) are not SCUBA.

29.20. CLAMS GENERAL.
(a) Except as provided in this article, there are no closed seasons, bag limits or size limits on saltwater clams.
(b) Fishing hours: One-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.
(c) Special gear provisions: Spades, shovels, hoes, rakes or other appliances operated by hand, except spears or gaff hooks, may be used to take clams. No instrument capable of being used to dig clams may be possessed between one-half hour after sunset and one-half hour before sunrise, on any beach of this state, except tools and implements used in the work of cleaning, repairing or maintaining such beach when possessed by a person authorized by appropriate authority to perform such work.


Motorized decoys for doves and upland game
Question: Can motorized decoys, such as Mojo be used on doves or other upland game birds?

Answer: Yes.


Catching live shad for bait using a cast net?
Question: I live in San Joaquin County and have two fishing questions. First, is it legal to fish with live shad? Second, is it legal to use a cast net/bait net to catch shad and minnows? (Justin)

Answer: A casting net or throw net is unlawful to use or possess in inland waters, but dip nets are authorized for taking certain species of fin fish that can be used as bait (see California Code of Regulations Title 14, sections 4.00 – 4.30 in the Freshwater Sport Fishing Regulations available online or wherever licenses are sold). Live shad may be used in the Valley and South Central Districts (CCR Title 14, section 4.10) in waters where taken, but they must be taken with a legal dip net under certain provisions.


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Carrie Wilson is a marine environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. While she cannot personally answer everyone’s questions, she will select a few to answer each week in this column. Please contact her at CalOutdoors@wildlife.ca.gov.

Carrie is on vacation. This column was originally published Aug. 9, 2012.

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