Introduction by Robert Hoague, Webmaster of Bowhunting.net
Wondering about what the wild turkeys are doing? If you’re hunting gobblers this Spring I’ll bet you are. I did a little research myself and turned up this wealth of turkey information, gathered the right way. by extensive research over several years. So check out this article by T.R. Michels as he reports the results of his extensive research on wild turkeys.
Although the first day of the spring turkey season was cloudy, and a cold wind was blowing, I headed for the soybean field where I had seen a flock of turkeys just after daylight for the last two weeks. I was fairly sure the birds wouldn’t show up because of the weather. But, just to be on the safe side I drove to the field forty-five minutes before daylight.
I parked on the road, got out of the Suburban, and owl hooted loudly. When I didn’t get an answer I hooted again, still no answer. I waited several minutes as the sky grew lighter and then blew a Flydown Cackle, no answer. The birds were either not there, or they weren’t talking.
Luckily, I had been studying this flock for more than two years, and had an idea of where I could find at least two of the fourteen jakes and toms in the area. I got back in the Suburban and drove to a small bean field that was protected from north and east winds by the surrounding woods. By the time I got there the sky was already turning gray, so I grabbed my bag of decoys and quickly made my way to the edge of the woods. When I reached the gully that ran into the field from the north I put out two hen decoys and two toms decoys, one in a semi-strut position, the other in a full strut.
I chose a large tree at the edge of the woods, checked to make sure I had a clear line of sight, sat down, and yelped softly on my Haydel’s box call. With the wind blowing as hard as it was I wasn’t sure if I could hear the birds if they answered me, or if they could hear me. I called intermittently for the next fifteen minutes without getting a response. Then I heard a double gobble. I called one more time and waited. I knew the birds were coming toward me because they kept gobbling every two to three minutes, and each time the sound was closer. A half-hour after I set up two long bearded toms walked down the gully, into the field, and approached the decoys. If I had been hunting, the toms would have offered an easy shot at fifteen yards.
As a guide, writer and seminar speaker it’s my job to know when and where to find game animals on a regular basis. Like most hunters I have had days when I felt I had chosen the right day, location time to hunt, and I still didn’t see anything. I was fairly sure the weather had a lot to do with not seeing any game.
From the research I read I knew that turkeys often roosted on the downwind side of a hill, to get out of cold winds. From my own experience I knew that they often flew down later than normal on cloudy days. But, I wasn’t exactly sure of when, where or how other weather conditions affected the activity of turkeys.
That’s when I began watching the flock of thirty-four birds a half mile from our house. For four years I watched, listened and recorded the movements of the birds. Almost every day, from the middle of March to late May, I went out in the evening to find out where the birds roosted. The next morning I would go back to the same spot an hour before daybreak. Before I left the house I would write down the date, temperature, wind speed, wind-chill, sky conditions and the type and amount of precipitation.
Once the toms began to gobble I’d record the time and number of the gobbles, any other calls the birds made, and how many hens, toms and jakes I saw. I would also write down what the birds did and when they did it, how long they did it, and where they went. I would usually listen to and watch the birds from sunrise to as late as 1:30 PM.
What I learned in four years has allowed me to see more birds, find them on a regular basis, and get closer to them. My research shows that several different meteorological conditions affect turkeys activity on a daily basis. These conditions include the amount of available light (time of day and cloud cover), temperature or wind-chill (whichever is lower), wind speed, and the amount and type of precipitation.
The first thing I noticed was that the toms usually started gobbling about forty-five minutes before sunrise; and that most gobbling occurred from forty-five minutes before to forty-five minutes after sunrise. On clear days the birds generally flew down from five to thirty minutes before sunrise. When the sky was cloudy the toms usually called ten to twenty minutes later than when the sky was clear, and both the toms and hens flew down later than normal.
I noted that gobbling was correlated with temperature and wind-chill; there was more gobbling on warm days than on cold days. Most gobbling occurred when the temperature or wind-chill was between 34 and 55 degrees. When the temperature or wind-chill dropped below 34 degrees there was little gobbling, and the birds often waited until the temperature warmed later on in the morning before actively gobbling. These temperature parameters may vary in different areas, because turkey researcher Lovett Williams informs me that turkeys in Florida gobble when the temperature is below freezing. I did not find that gobbling was reduced when the temperatures were high. I’ve heard Merriam’s turkeys actively gobbling in Nebraska when the temperatures were over 80 degrees.
There was much less gobbling when wind speeds exceeded 10 miles per hour. I suspect that high winds, and the sound of falling rain, make it hard for the birds to hear each other calling, which causes them to gobble less in response to each other’s calls. I also found that the toms responded less to my calling on windy and rainy days, probably because they couldn’t hear my calls.
On exceedingly windy days the turkeys often spent less time feeding in open areas, and more time in protected areas. When it was windy and cold the turkeys generally stayed out of open feeding areas, choosing to move to the downwind side of hills and woods; or low-lying areas out of the wind.
On one morning when there was a 23 mile per hour wind, and a windchill of 34 degrees, I watched three jakes come off the roost and land in the field where they normally gobbled and strutted. Within minutes of flying down from their roosts the three jakes moved to a small, protected, low-lying field surrounded by woods, and stayed there for twenty-five minutes. They ate infrequently, never gobbled, did not strut, and stood with their backs to the wind most of the time.
When it rained in the late afternoon, evening, or during the night, the toms gobbled less than normal the next morning, and all the birds usually flew down later than normal. I suspect this was because it was usually still damp, windy, and cloudy. But, even when it was clear and not windy, there was reduced gobbling if there had been precipitation within the last 12 hours. If it was still raining in the morning gobbling began later than normal, and there was less gobbling activity. If the rain stopped during the morning the toms often began to gobble within the hour.
At night the birds usually roosted within a few hundred yards of a feeding/strutting area, and generally choose the same group of trees to roost in when they were in particular areas. But, when it began to rain or snow early in the afternoon the turkeys often roosted earlier than normal, and they chose the nearest large trees to roost in, rather than going to the trees they would normally use when they were in that area. This caused the turkeys to arrive at feeding/strutting areas later than normal the next morning, because they had to travel farther to get there.
Drizzle or light rain and snow, that started during the day, and lasted for more than ten to fifteen minutes, did not seem to affect the turkeys. But, if light rain or snow lasted for more than 20 minutes the birds usually moved to cover in wooded areas, where the hens often fed and the toms continued to strut. When it was raining heavily the birds usually moved to wooded areas within minutes, where they sometimes fed, but often stood under the trees or flew up to roost.
During or after rainy conditions the birds often traveled where the ground vegetation was low (pastures and fields), where they wouldn’t get any wetter than they already were, or they traveled where there was less vegetation (game trails and roads in wooded areas). After a heavy rain or snow I often saw the birds sitting in protected areas with their wings outspread, so they could dry out, especially if the sun was shining. Once they had sufficiently dried out they began to move and feed. The toms rarely gobble however, because they were often with the hens.
Spring Turkey Movement
Spring is when turkeys begin to shift from winter to summer ranges. This shift doesn’t happen at the same time each year, because it depends on the amount of food available, and the weather conditions. Depending on where you hunt the summer ranges may be from as little as a half mile to several miles apart.
In areas where the winter and summer ranges are only a few miles apart the shift may occur over several days, with birds leaving one day and returning the next. In areas where the winter and summer ranges are several miles apart the move may take weeks, with the birds advancing only as far as new foods become available.
Because of this shift from winter to spring ranges the only way to determine where the turkeys are is by scouting the area from a week to a day before you hunt. When you are scouting you may see tracks, droppings, feathers and dusting bowls. These signs help you determine whether or not there are birds in the area, and how recently they were there.
While you are scouting you should carry a topographical map or aerial photo of the area, and a notebook. Mark the areas where you see turkeys or turkey sign on your map or photo, and note the time and weather conditions and the number, sex, and location of the birds in your notebook. If you can, you should watch the turkeys several times before you hunt, so you know where they normally roost and feed. You should also watch more than one flock if you can, so you have backup birds to hunt when you can’t find a particular tom or flock.
Once you have scouted the area you can begin to pattern their movements. Patterning is the best way to be able to predict where to find the turkeys on a regular basis. In order to successfully pattern the turkeys you need to know when and where they fly down from their favorite roosting areas; where they feed when they are in that area; and the route they usually take when going from the roost to the feeding area. You should also know where they go after they leave the early morning feeding area, so that you can hunt them later in the day if you didn’t get a bird early in the morning. If you have done enough scouting, and taken enough notes during your scouting, you will begin to notice patterns of where the birds are at particular times of the day during particular weather conditions.
Turkeys generally fly down within a half-hour of sunrise, and move to a feeding area, where the toms often gobble and strut. They birds may stay in these areas for a half-hour or more before moving to another area. When they move, they may travel through wooded areas, feeding as they go, before arriving at another feeding area, where they may stay for another half-hour or more. They may also stay in the woods without going to another open area.
During the day the birds intermittently feed and roost in wooded areas; the hens may lay eggs or nest; the toms may gobble. In the late afternoon hours the birds may return to an open feeding area before flying up to roost. Laying hens don’t usually stay on the nest at night until after their last egg is laid; nesting hens spend the night on the nest, and move to feeding areas in the morning and evening.
Turkeys prefer to roost out of the wind if possible, in areas that are open to the early morning sun. The trees selected for roosting sites are usually taller than the surrounding trees, with large horizontal limbs. Large oak, elm, maple and box elder are used in the Midwest; cottonwood and aspen are often used in the prairie states; and pines are used because they have the ability to cut wind speeds by up to 50 percent.
In early spring, before the snow has melted, or new green growth has appeared, turkeys often move to agriculture fields shortly after leaving the roost. Turkeys often frequent pastures as they look for leftover food, and pick through cow droppings for undigested grains. Once the weather warms and the vegetation begins to turn green, turkeys may begin frequenting CRP and agricultural fields, and pastures and meadows. They often frequent south and east facing slopes; and creek bottoms where they feed on insects and newly grown forbes. They also feed on leftover acorns and other mast crops wherever they are available.
When you are ready to hunt, look and listen for turkeys going to roost at night, so you know where to find them in the morning. If you see birds feeding in open areas within a half-hour of sunset, they will usually roost nearby. They may return to feed in the same area the next morning. If you don’t see birds, drive around to likely roosting areas and try to get the toms to shock gobble in response to a crow call, owl hoot, Pileated woodpecker call, or a gobble.
Once you’ve located a roosting area figure out where the birds will likely feed the next morning, and the travel route they will take. Then setup the next morning along the travel route, or in the feeding area. If the weather is nice expect the birds to feed in unprotected areas, where you can set up. If it’s cloudy, windy, cold or rainy, set up in protected areas; and expect the birds to call later than normal, to call less than normal, and to move less and later in the day than they would on warm sunny days. When you’re calling, try to get close or upwind of where you think the birds are, so they can hear your calls.
T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized game researcher/wildlife behaviorist, outdoor writer and speaker. He is the author of the Whitetail, Elk, Duck & Goose, and Turkey Addict’s Manuals. His latest products are the 2003 Revised Edition of the Whitetail Addict’s Manual, the 2003 Revised Edition of the Elk Addict’s Manual; and the 2003 Revised Edition of the Duck & Goose Addict’s Manual. For a catalog of books and other hunting products contact: T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983, USA. Phone: 507-824-3296,