May 16, 2023
Even with as much time as I spend in the field, both for work and recreation, I fear I’ll never be able to fully explain the daily activities of a tom turkey. However, as a biologist and land management consultant, working with landowners across the country to improve their wildlife habitat has allowed me to fine-tune my ability to understand the bird’s behavior.
While I will use approximations and make certain assumptions throughout this piece as I outline the hypothetical daily routine of a tom, know that I intend nothing more than to get you started in the right direction of "thinking like a turkey." While these erratic birds can leave us dumbstruck at some of the decisions they make, more often than not they behave just smart enough to leave us feeling silly.
EARLY MORNING (Dawn to 10 a.m.)
The woods begin to stir as the first rays of light illuminate the Eastern sky. A mature, 3-year-old gobbler has been clutching the limb of a favorite roost tree all night. As the last barred owl hoots, the gobbler cuts him off with a roaring shock gobble, announcing to the world, "This is my day! I am here, and I am ready to rumble!"
Before we go any further, let’s pause for a brief synopsis of roosting behavior. During the spring mating season, a mature male turkey will reside within a home range of roughly 2 square miles. Within this home range, he will have four to six pre-determined roosting locations. As a tom navigates his home range, he will make a circuit, roosting in one place for a night (maybe two) before his adventures lead him to the next roost site. This is a gobbler’s way of "spreading his seed," rather than following the same hens around for the entire breeding season. This process continues until the bird ends up in the location where he roosted on day one. If you see or hear a bird roosting in the same spot two mornings in a row, those are most likely two different birds.
Let’s now return to our 3-year-old, who remains perched in his roost tree near the top of a drainage, which he chose for its expansive views. He gobbles and drums from his limb but is reluctant to fly down until he sees a hen. Lucky for him, a small group of hens likes what it hears and begins navigating toward the source of those buttery smooth tones.
As the hens crest the ridgeline, the tom flies down to an old logging road between the roost tree and the incoming hens. Once on the ground, the gobbling stops. The tom has what he wants—interested hens—and sees little reason to draw more attention to the party.
Not only is fly-down the most exciting time to be a spectator in the turkey woods, it’s also the best time to get aggressive with your calling. The birds are fired up after a long night, and it is time for you to match their enthusiasm.
Turkeys rely heavily on their eyesight, especially in the low light of dawn. For this reason, a gobbler will tend to choose roosting locations with good visibility to get a visual on hens or potential predators before he exits the tree. The top of an extensive drainage (such as where we find our tom), trees overlooking a body of water and the edges of a clearcut are all great examples of preferred roosting locations.
If you know where they are roosting, get there early, set up quietly, hide well and call loudly. If you haven’t identified a roost site, pull out your favorite locator call and give it a rip every quarter mile or so to initiate a shock gobble and get yourself heading in the right direction.
Early in the morning, our tom is perfectly content tending to his hens on the logging road, and it would take an act of God to pull him away from the females. Your best chance of connecting with him is to get the attention of one of the hens in his harem and get her to break away from the flock to investigate the intruding hen you are impersonating. If you can convince a hen to come to you, the tom will surely follow.
- Early-Morning Vocalizations
The first hour or so of daylight is when you want to be most aggressive with your calling. My favorite calls early in the day are yelps and cuts—crisp, sharp tones that carry for long distances. My secret weapon early in the day is what I describe as a studder-yelp, which consists of cutting with intermittent yelps sprinkled in. With this, I’m attempting to impersonate a moody, excited hen. Consider using a box call in the mornings to get more volume.
BRUNCHTIME (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Impressed by the performance the tom has been putting on, a hen allows him to breed. After copulation, she leaves him behind with the rest of the hens and heads toward her nest to lay a single egg. Each hen will lay one egg per day throughout her laying period, which lasts between 8 and 15 days, resulting in as many eggs in her nest. One by one, the hens are bred and depart, leaving the tom behind on the logging road he’s been using as his strut zone. He will remain here for some time, calling and displaying to seduce any straggling hens in the area.
With no response, the bird’s empty crop takes priority, and he heads down the hill in search of food. He’ll work the food sources for nourishment and attention from the remaining hens yet to be bred. A grove of beech trees, a stand of red oaks and an old locust tree dropping its last few remaining bean pods of the year are all on the brunchtime menu. With a full belly and more love to offer, the tom navigates his way toward the neighbor’s hay field to make himself more visible.
When mobile, I’ll walk logging roads and let out a series of calls every time I get to a crest in the hill, a turn in the logging road, a change in terrain type or a point off the ridge, being sure to always call before exposing myself. After all, there might be a gobbler in full strut around the corner. For this reason, I use softer calls around corners and louder calls when calling off points and ridges.
If nothing is happening, I keep track of my progress. (This is a great time to utilize the “breadcrumb” feature on your favorite mapping app, as you will eventually walk back on the same path.) Your movement should be linear, not circular. My goal is to end up as far away from where I started the morning as possible by 2 p.m.
Keep an eye out for fresh sign as you walk. Scratching in the leaves, feathers, scat, tracks in the mud, torn locust bean pods and beech nut debris are some of my favorite indicators to encounter. If you discover a bunch of scat and feathers but no sign of feeding, you have probably located a roost tree.
While moving, I am more concerned about the volume of my call than what particular sound I make. When trying to extend my call off the point of a ridge or down into a valley, I opt for a box to make yelps and cutts, as it’s the loudest call in my vest. I’ll switch to a softer pot call when approaching a bend in the road or a crest in the hill. I’ll let out a series of soft yelps and purrs in these situations, just loud enough for a bird to hear if he is around the corner. Before calling, scope out a place where you can duck for cover quickly in the event the bird comes in on a string.
LOAFING TIME (2 to 6 p.m.)
As wind speeds pick up in the early afternoon, our tom can no longer rely on his acute sense of hearing to locate hens. Instead, he is likely to be somewhere with high visibility. Agriculture fields, clear cuts, food plots, burned units and cattle pastures are all suitable habitat types to keep in mind. Because of the early spring this year, the pasture grasses in the hay field are already too tall for the tom to appropriately display, so he moves on to the cattle pasture next door. Here, the vegetation is so low that his spurs glisten in the spring sunshine.
He’s in full strut when a pair of hens catches his eye by the creek. The gregarious nature of the hens gets the better of them, and they meander their way to the tom. With temperatures as high as they’ll be all day, the three birds finally work toward the field edge to escape the sun and do what turkeys do best—loaf. This is the time of day that hygiene and digestion take priority in the turkey woods.
Here, within the twiggy confines of an edge-feathering project, the birds take advantage of the ash and soil exposed from a recent burn and begin to dust. They preen their feathers. They peck at themselves and each other. They lay down out of apparent boredom. They get more bored and stand up. They lay back down and wait for the heat to dissipate.
As the hottest part of the day (around 4 p.m.) approaches, the tom and the hens get up and head toward a stand of mature white pines on a north-facing slope to enjoy the shade and quiet.
This is the most challenging time of day to kill a tom. The birds are flocked up again, almost all the hens have been bred and they have nowhere to be with nothing to do. For this reason, you have two contradicting options; cover ground or take another nap.
Now might be a good time to start working your way back along you breadcrumb trail. Gobblers may have heard your calls earlier and, for whatever reason, were silent on their way up the hill to investigate. I call the same way I did earlier, stopping at turns, crests in the ridge and other visual obstructions. Be sure to wait in silence for 2 to 5 minutes after each calling session to listen for a response. If you are getting close to where you started the day, having a snack might be in order as you wait for the temp to drop.
- Loafing Time Vocalizations
I treat calling in the late afternoon very similarly to calling earlier in the afternoon, with one caveat: I put the box call away in favor of a pot or mouth call and call more quietly. The chances are good that if you encounter a tom on your way back toward your starting location, he will already be up on the ridge looking for the source of your calling from earlier in the day. Keep a mouth call handy if you hear a response and need to hide.
TWILIGHT (6 p.m. to Sunset)
Our tom and his lady friends stretch their legs beneath the old pines as the sun begins to kiss the western horizon. His itinerary for the evening consists of following the hens toward their roost and enjoying whatever hors d’oeuvres they encounter along the way. He follows the ladies up the hillside, leisurely consuming coral berries, earthworms, beech nuts and perhaps an unfortunate salamander before the hens pitch into an old elm tree. Our tom continues along the ridge until he finds himself aloft in his second-favorite roost tree. An owl hoots as he settles in for the night. He’s got a big day tomorrow.
Twilight tactics are straightforward: You must get between the tom and the roost tree. What a turkey eats for dinner is more a product of convenience than a craving for some delectable yet inconvenient morsel. Think fast-food drive-through versus heading all the way to grandma’s house for a cherry pie. If you encountered new signs of feeding earlier in the day (scat, feathers, turned-up leaves), return to these areas and wait. Keep your call volume down and your gun up.
I don’t stray too far from soft yelps and purrs this late in the day. If you are fortunate enough to hear a response late in the afternoon, get your gun ready and shut up. He is coming. Turkeys aren’t very vocal this late in the day, so if you have a gobbler willing to talk, you should have yourself a dead bird.
Note: This article is featured in the East edition of May's Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe.