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Where Toms Display for Hens in Spring

This Turkey Tuesday is about where toms go in spring to display for hens – termed leks. A lek is simply a place that males congregate to attract mates. Some birds use classical leks, where all the males in a local area display at the same location – like prairie chickens. But recent work on wild turkeys suggests they use a strategy more akin to what’s termed exploded leks, where small groups of toms occur throughout parts of the landscape and “keep tabs on” other toms by gobbling. Toms leave their winter ranges just before hens and move to their spring ranges where these leks occur – these are the small groups of toms you’re seeing right now strutting for hens. Toms revisit these exploded leks repeatedly during the breeding season, usually in the mornings while they seek attention from hens. Ongoing work on populations of Easterns suggests that these leks comprise about 8% of a tom’s spring range, so a lot of important breeding activities occur in a relatively small portion of their range. In fact, it appears that toms revisit a given leks every few days, so it’s clear each tom has several leks in his breeding range – us turkey hunters see this, a tom flies down today and heads in one direction, but heads in the other direction tomorrow. Easterns live in mostly forested landscapes, so it’s not surprising that it also appears that leks occur closer to open areas and hardwoods. Lastly, it appears that toms establish leks in areas where the probability of hens already using that area is higher, and where they are more visible – think areas within forests where vegetation is open enough to make the bird visible from a distance. Not only does being visible allow toms to attract hens that are approaching their location, but it also allows them to detect danger heading their way. The take home is, ongoing work suggests that toms establish these breeding leks in very specific parts of their spring range, owing to the importance of these areas to our local populations.

Pic by Matt Addington.

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