It’s nearly Spring Turkey season in much of the country right now, and hunters are heading into the woods in record numbers in hopes of bagging a gobbler for the dinner table. Turkeys are one of the smartest, wiliest and most paranoid game animals in the North American woods. They are notoriously difficult to read properly and will take flight and flee in a split second at the slightest hint that something is amiss. There is hope however; by studying turkey behavior, calls, and body language, you can learn to understand part of what that sly bird is thinking.
Hunters who have stalked these elusive birds through the woods have more than likely heard the warning “putt” of a turkey just before he, and every bird near him, departs for regions unknown. This ominous sound generally indicates that a turkey is spooked and isn’t going to stick around much longer. It warns other nearby turkeys to watch out, and most gobblers and hens will likewise find the nearest thicket to dart into upon hearing a warning putt. So, how can you tell when a turkey is getting nervous? What signs lead up to the deciding moment when a strutting gobbler stops puffing up, stretches out his neck, and gives one last putt before skedaddling out of sight?
|Photo Courtesy randomduck, Licensed under Creative Commons.|
When you first spot an approaching tom, closely watch his posture and pace. A gobbler confidently walking into range either strutting with his feathers puffed up and beard dragging, or simply purposefully walking in and surveying the situation while occasionally stopping to puff up and display is a turkey who is not afraid yet. Watch your target’s tail feathers. Gobblers will generally angle their tail towards a hen they are trying to impress. If he turns his tail towards you, your calls are having an effect on the amorous bird.
On the other hand, if the turkey warily approaches, stopping and turning in fits and starts, you may be dealing with a turkey who has already sensed trouble. Sometimes even confident birds will be difficult to coax into range. If a tom is moving slowly and hesitates to move closer, keep a close eye on him. He may not have sensed trouble yet, but he’s searching hard for anything to give him a reason to run. Watch for him to stop and stand up straight: turkeys that see something out of place will stop and stick their head up high to get a good view. Their feathers will lay back flat and slick as if glued down into place. If he hikes a wing up, you’ve only got a few seconds to shoot or change tactics. Once that second wing comes up, he’s made a decision and is taking flight for the next county over.
If you have decoys out and he refuses to strut, twitches and shuffles his wings, or repeatedly stops and examines the area in detail searching for something amiss, again you’ll need to quickly change your tactics if you’re going to to bring the tom in closer. These wary birds can be called in, but once they are spooked you can’t use the normal yelps and cutts. Instead, stop calling all together and scratch some leaves or, if you must call, use soft calm calls like low clucks and purrs.
When you spot a tom surrounded by hens, it sometimes pays to switch tactics and call in the hens instead. Lusty gobblers will follow where the hens go. Try to identify the lead hen and play your calls to her. While gobbling for males is generally a rookie mistake, it does occasionally work when a male turkey is surrounded by his harem. Jealous males will often charge into the area upon hearing a challenging gobbler hoping to challenge another male or teach an adolescent upstart a quick lesson.
Inevitably, no matter how hard you try, you’re going to make a mistake and spook your bird. It may be that he spotted your movement, or maybe the sun glinted off of a part of your scattergun; whatever the reason, if the gobbler has already got his neck stretched out and is about to sound a “putt” and leave, you may try preempting him with a putt call of your own. Turkeys find safety in numbers, and if a wary tom hears a putt he may try to get closer to the bird sounding the warning. This last ditch tactic doesn’t always work, but if you’re going to lose the bird anyway, it never hurts to try to confuse him a little bit.
Turkeys are fickle beasts and even the most confident gobbler will occasionally, without warning, turn and head for the deepest cover available. When this happens, look at it as a learning opportunity. Once a turkey has fled your cover has been blown so take a break and head over to where the turkey got spooked. Try to look at the scene from his point of view. Does anything look out of place? If so, you may try changing your hide spot or adjusting your camouflage. If not, don’t lose heart; it’s possible that the calls just didn’t suit his mood, or possibly he noticed some inadvertent movement on your part.
Calling in a lovestruck tom is one of the greatest thrills in hunting. Sometimes it seems like all the stars need to align just to give your quarry the confidence he needs to move into range. But you can shift the odds in your favor. By practicing your powers of observation, you can quickly learn to read the gobbler’s mind and adapt your calling techniques to bring in wary turkeys. Reading gobbler body language is an easy skill to master, it just takes a little additional time spent in the woods watching and learning from your prey.