Taming Turkey Talk

By Jake Hindman | February 19, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2015

Spring makes wild turkey hunters daydream of calm mornings with gobbles erupting from every ridge.

In particular, it’s the interaction between hunter and turkey that brings many back to the timber each season. However, wild turkey communication is complex, with many different kinds of vocalizations and extensive body language. Hunters can increase their chances of success if they have a complete understanding of how and why turkeys communicate. Let’s review the basics.

Turkey Talk 101

Wild turkeys have a well-developed communication system that plays an important role in their lives. From avoiding danger to mating, turkeys depend on communication to survive.

Turkeys use two main forms of communication: vocal and visual. Turkeys often use both methods at the same time. For example, a tom may gobble while also strutting and posturing (the act of spreading its tail fan, dragging its wings, and making its body appear larger) for attraction and dominance. During this display, the gobbler is making his presence known vocally by gobbling and visually by displaying.

Vocal Communication

Wild turkeys produce over 20 different types of vocalizations and other sounds (see Turkey Talk Dictionary sidebar for the most common). These calls help birds signal danger, establish social status, and attract a mate. Both gobblers and hens make vocalizations throughout the year. For alarm, all turkeys will “putt.” Biologists and hunters think this call warns offending hunters or predators the turkey has spotted them and their efforts to surprise the bird are over. In addition, this alerts other turkeys within hearing distance to the danger.

Both gobblers and hens make vocalizations throughout the year. Hens will communicate with gobblers by tree calling, yelping, cackling, and cutting.

To establish social status, turkeys need other birds around them. However, their flocking nature changes throughout the year. For example, in the fall and winter, it is common for gobblers and hens to break into separate flocks. But as spring unfolds, breeding flocks become more common, with a mix of gobblers and hens. Much of the social status within the flock is established through calling and displaying. Both gobblers and hens will fight for rank within the pecking order while making a number of vocalizations. Establishing dominance helps gobblers, in particular, transition into spring, the mating season, with ease.

The turkey’s spring mating ritual and the accompanying sounds and behaviors are well documented. Gobblers are polygamous and will mate with several hens throughout the season. Usually around mid-March, the first gobbles can be heard at daylight. Toms will typically fly down, stand on a ridge, gobble, strut, and spit and drum in the hopes of attracting a hen. Many times, gobbling subsides after fly-down, and toms switch almost entirely to strutting with spitting and drumming. Humans can hear this unique sound only a short distance, usually less than 75 yards. Hens will communicate frequently with gobblers by tree calling, yelping, cackling, and cutting and by coming to the vocal communication offered by toms. This ritual continues through the end of May and overlaps with our spring turkey-hunting season.

Visual Communication

Although we think of turkeys gobbling and yelping to communicate, they don’t always make noise to send a message. Wild turkeys frequently use body language and behavior — strutting is an example. In addition to strutting, turkeys also exhibit other posturing to help maintain social structure within a flock.

This posturing can lead to fighting to establish dominance as mentioned earlier

As turkeys approach your setup, pay attention to the birds’ body language. A relaxed tom will exhibit normal walking behavior, may strut, and will usually have a relaxed or drooping snood. Stiff walking, high-stretched neck and head, putting, and a shortened snood can be signs of an alert turkey that may be aware of your or another hunter’s location.

Learn the Lingo, Master the Methods

Although turkeys have an extensive vocabulary, you should concentrate on mastering the two most common calls: the yelp and cluck.

Learn how to make the calls and, more importantly, when to make them. Practice these calls on a device that is simple and easy to operate until you can produce the sounds with ease.

There are a number of calling devices designed to lure a gobbler into range. The two main types are friction and air blown.

Turkey Body Language

Wild turkeys use a variety of behaviors and appearances to signal their sex, age, mood, or intention. Get to know their most common behaviors and physical features.

  • Body Blow-up. Gobblers spread their tail fan, erect their body feathers, and drag their wings while showing off their iridescent colors to establish dominance and attract a mate.
  • Snood Senses. Watch a tom’s snood as he approaches your setup. If the snood is long and droopy, he is likely content. If the snood stands straight up quickly, the bird is likely nervous and may not be hanging around long.
  • Rainbow Head. Turkeys’ heads change color frequently. In the spring, a gobbler’s head color can change between red, white, and blue, often within a few seconds, depending on his mood.
  • Bristly Beard. Most toms have beards made up of hairlike feathers protruding from the center of the chest. Beards are thought to indicate the male sex and may communicate dominance. However, as many as 20 percent of hens have beards. Beards serve little purpose for determining age past two years. This is because they are rubbed or broken off as the birds walk or by ice buildup during winter.
  • Sharp Spurs. Most gobblers have spurs, which are curved features growing from the inner leg. Gobblers use spurs to fight and establish dominance. Hens rarely have spurs. Spur length is the most accurate indicator for the aging of toms.
  • Friction calls. For beginners, a friction call (box or push button) is a great choice. Try a few inexpensive types of calls at your local sporting goods store.
  • Friction Devices: These calling devices produce turkey sounds by rubbing together pieces of wood, slate, ceramic, or glass. Typical friction calls include pot/pan calls, box calls, and push/pull calls. These are simple to use and recommended for everyone. In addition, these calls can produce incredibly realistic sounds. One downside is most friction calls require two hands to operate, which creates movement that may spook an incoming turkey. Try different types of friction devices as your skills improve.
  • Air-Blown Devices: Typically these include mouth diaphragm calls and tube calls. These types of calls can produce a wide range of realistic sounds, but they require more practice than friction calls. In addition, you can use mouth diaphragm calls with minimal movement, making them great to use when working a turkey those last few yards.
  • As with other wildlife calling, two main forms of turkey calling are practiced: contact calling and blind calling. In contact calling, you haveseen or heard the turkey and can watch orhear the bird’s reaction when you call. This can be the most effective form of calling. During blind calling situations, you usecalls in a likely spot, approximately every30 minutes, with the hope of calling in aturkey within hearing distance. If you’rewalking and calling, wear blaze orange.

Calling Scenarios

Every turkey hunt will bring about different scenarios. Here are three of the most common.

Youth Season: Opening Day

Situation: It is 6 a.m. and there are two toms gobbling routinely about 100 yards ahead in the timber. You also hear hens calling farther away and fear the hens will drag the gobblers away. Your soft calls have the gobblers gobbling; however, they have stood their ground. How do you call in one of the toms for a shot?

Technique: Challenge the talkative hens by mimicking their calls and topping it with more aggressive cutting and yelping. Use different calling devices to convince the flock you are more than one bird. Add realism by mixing in clucks and purrs with leaf scratching. Expect the hens to come in and drag the gobblers with them. Wait 15 to 20 minutes before trying another tactic.

Regular Spring Season: Opening Day

Situation: Your scouting has confirmed a gobbler typically flies down and struts in a log landing and remains there until midmorning. You have eased in and now you are sitting on the edge of that log landing with a single hen decoy positioned 20 yards in front of you. It is 5:45 a.m. and the tom gobbled for the first time 100 yards to your right.

Technique: Start by offering soft tree yelps to let the gobbler know you are there. He will likely gobble back eagerly. Wait for him to fly down and then offer a short series of excited cutts and yelps, and then go silent. Keep your firearm pointed in the direction of his gobbles. Listen for spitting and drumming as he approaches.

Regular Spring Season: Last Day

Situation: It is 7 a.m. and you are hunting a large field where gobblers routinely strut. You have heard little gobbling, and nothing is close. What calls might you try to attract a tom?

Technique: Offer short series of soft yelps, clucks, and purrs every 20 to 30 minutes. Don’t be surprised if a gobbler shows up unannounced.

Calling up a love-crazed gobbler can be one of the most fulfilling experiences for any hunter. However, for calling to be effective, it must be used in combination with other strategies such as woodsmanship, decoys, and solid setups. For many hunters, it takes experience to understand how to apply the language of wild birds. Study up on how turkeys communicate, apply that knowledge appropriately, and you will be well on your way to notching your tag this spring.

Trick a Tom

Every turkey will respond differently to communication techniques. Use these guidelines for success.

  • Pick a Solid Setup: Scout the area in advance to locate a turkey hangout. Find a setup location before making any calls in case the gobbler comes in quickly. Keep it safe by choosing a tree that is wider than your shoulders and a spot where you can be seen by others. Keep your gun up and pointed in the direction from which you expect the gobbler to approach and keep movement to a minimum. Leave your safety on and your finger off the trigger until you confirm your target and a clear background.
  • Build the Conversation: Start out with soft passive calls (plain yelps, clucks) before becoming aggressive. You can always ramp up calling later. However, once aggressive language is used, you cannot take it back.
  • Learn the Language: Understand what you are saying when you call to a turkey. For example, make sure you are not putting to birds, which would actually be telling them to stay away!
  • Diversify Calling: Use a variety of calls and calling devices. In addition, add in natural sounds. Examples include wing flapping combined with fly-down cackles or leaf scratching combined with clucks and purrs.
  • Read Reaction: If contact calling, pay attention to the turkey’s reaction and change the conversation if needed. For example, if a turkey cuts off your calling by gobbling, this may be an aggressive tom that may come in quickly. If a turkey is approaching your setup, only call enough to keep the bird coming. Often, once a turkey has committed to investigating, you will not need to call again. If blind calling, pay close attention to your surroundings because a turkey could approach your setup anytime.

Turkey Talk Dictionary

Wild turkeys produce a number of vocalizations and sounds. Become familiar with the most basic

(for recordings and more information on turkey vocalizations visit mdc.mo.gov/node/29704).

  • Cackle Call sometimes made by turkeys when flying, often when flying down from the roost Use this call along with wingbeats to let a gobbler know you are on the ground and ready for business.
  • Cluck Soft, contented staccato notes Excellent reassurance call and can mean “I’m here, where are you?”
  • Cutt Sharp, staccato notes with varying pitch and intensity. Conveys excitement and sometimes aggression Mix with yelps to convey excitement. Fighting Purrs Loud rolling call produced when turkeys are fighting Use this call sparingly to fake a fight.
  • Gobble Loud gurgling call made primarily by toms to attract hens in the spring Not recommended to imitate due to safety
  • Kee Kee Run Usually three high-pitched notes followed by yelps. Made by young turkeys when lost Commonly used in the fall after a flock has been separated
  • Purr Soft, rolling call often accompanied by clucks Use this to signify contentment and to convince a turkey to come those last few yards.
  • Putt Made by all turkeys in alarm, typically when danger has been spotted The turkey knows you are there, and will likely leave.
  • Spit and Drum Thought to be produced from the gobbler’s mouth (spit) and chest (drumming). This sound is accompanied by strutting. Toms will spit and drum while strutting and displaying to attract hens.
  • Tree Call Soft nasal yelps made on the roost Great first call to use when calling to a gobbler before fly-down
  • Yelp Many versions exist (plain, excited, assembly). This is the most common call of hens. Use variations of the yelp for general communication with turkeys.

Also In This Issue

Libby Schwartz and her husband Charles
Women continue to shape the future of conservation in Missouri.
Forest Park in St. Louis
Education program helps Missourians value — and promote — the many benefits of trees and forests

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler