Wild Turkey Terminology

Compiled by the National Wild Turkey Federation
Edited by Stanley Holtsclaw – April 2, 2017


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  • Beard: These modified feathers grow out from the chest of male turkeys and some hens. Beards average nine inches long, and some turkeys may have multiple beards. The longest single beard to date is recorded at just over 22.5 inches. Only about 10 percent of hens have beards.
  • Box call: A turkey hunting classic, the box call was patented by Henry Gibson in 1897. As the name implies, the call is a small coffin-shaped box that creates a sound chamber and is operated by running the lid of the call along the edges of the box. These calls offer the great volume needed on windy days, and can be used to replicate the entire range of turkey vocalizations, including gobbles. Shop ‘box calls’ at Amazon.
  • Breeding: Any time between the end of February and the end of May is considered mating season, depending on latitude and elevation. Courtship rituals begin when turkeys are still flocked together in wintering areas. The process is basically controlled by day length, but is also influenced by weather.
  • Caller (or call): This device is used to mimic various sounds of the wild turkey.
  • Calling: This technique is used by hunters, who imitate the sounds made by the desired game animal with the goal of enticing the animal into firing range.
  • Call-shy: This term describes individual animals that have heard hunters using calls so often that they avoid the call rather than move toward it.
  • Characteristic differences of male and female turkeys: The two main differences between male and female turkeys are spurs and beards. Both sexes are born with a small button spur on the back ofeach leg. Soon after hatching, a male’s spurs begin to grow pointed and curved, and eventually reach lengths of up to two inches. Typically, a hen’s spurs don’t grow. Gobblers, or male turkeys, always have beards while few hens do. Head color, breast feathers, size, their droppings and the calls they make also can be distinguishing characteristics.
  • Chufa: Turkeys dig up and eat the tubers, or fleshy underground roots, of this grass-like plant during the winter and spring – You can find BioLogic Turkey Gold Chufa at Amazon.
  • Cluck: This turkey sound consists of one or more short, staccato notes. Many times, plain clucks include two or three single-note clucks. Generally used by one bird to get another bird’s attention, this call also reassures an approaching gobbler that a hen is waiting for him.
  • Cutt: This series of fast, loud, erratic single notes includes a modified cluck and a distinct abrupt call. A cutt can be heard at great distances and is often used by a hen turkey on the prowl for a partner.
  • Decoys: These artificial birds, used to attract turkeys into firing range, come in several styles from photo-image silhouettes to foldouts and inflatables. A typical decoy setup includes a pair of hens and a single jake. Before hunting, check and follow state regulations regarding decoy use. Shop ‘turkey decoys’ at Amazon.
  • Diaphragm (or mouth) call: This call is made of a small horseshoe-shaped frame wrapped in tape with latex stretched across the opening of the frame. While it is one of the more difficult calls to learn to use, its effectiveness and hands-free operation make it the most commonly used. A caller uses his or her tongue to adjust pressure and alter the sounds of the call. Many turkey sounds can be made by holding the call in the roof of the mouth and exhaling air between the call and the tongue. Shop ‘diaphram calls’ at Amazon.
  • Dogs: Dogs are used to hunt turkeys in the fall in states where it is legal.Once a dog locates a flock, its main job is to scatter the birds. Any breed that can cover a lot of ground, bark on the flush and then sit still while a hunter calls birds back in can be a turkey dog. Historically, hunters used a dog called a feist.
  • Drag marks: These are marks left by gobblers when they strut. During the spring, gobblers put on a show to attract the attention of hens. They fan out their tails, drag their wings on the ground and take a series of steps in a display called strutting. As they strut, their wing feathers leave marks on the ground that look like someone drew a line in the sand.
  • Dusting: This is a way for turkeys to clean their feathers. Turkeys lie on their breasts in mounds of dry sand, near burned or old rotted stumps and kick dust and dirt onto their backs. The dust filters through their feathers, removing mites, lice and other parasites.
  • Eastern Wild Turkey: This is the most common of the five North American wild turkey subspecies. They are found throughout the Eastern half of the United States.
  • Feathers: An adult turkey has between 5,000 and 6,000 feathers, which are a color combination of green, red, bronze, copper and gold. Gobblers like to show off their tail feathers, and are more colorful than hens, which helps keep hens camouflaged from predators and other dangers.
  • Feathers (as sign): This is one of many signs a turkey may leave behind. Feathers under a tree may mean turkeys spent the night roosted in that tree.
  • Flock: This term refers to a group of turkeys.
  • Fly-down: This term is used when a turkey flies from a tree to the ground.
  • Food: Wild turkeys eat different foods depending on the season. During summer months, young turkeys, called poults, eat insects. Insects are protein-rich, which helps poults grow. Adults eat insects as well as grasses, berries, young leaves, flowers and other green foliage. During fall and winter, wild turkeys eat more fruits and berries. They like acorns, waste corn and pine seeds, and also will look for waste grain in fields that have been harvested.
  • Foodplots: These small, food-rich areas of ground, often planted with corn, sorghum, chufa or millet, often attract turkeys.
  • Friction call: As its name implies, this type of call uses a form of friction to make turkey sounds. A box calls uses a lid, while a slate call uses a peg. Shop ‘friction calls’ at Amazon.
  • Gobbler: Gobblers are male wild turkeys, and are typically larger, darker, shinier and more colorful than hens. Their heads are especially colorful and can turn red, white and/or blue. One of a gobbler’s characteristics is a beard of modified feathers, which grows from it’s chest. Gobblers also have long spurs, which can measure up to 2 inches long, growing from the back of their legs.
  • Gould’s: This subspecies of the North American wild turkey is found in central Mexico, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.
  • Hen: Hens, or female wild turkeys, are smaller and duller looking than the colorful gobbler. This dull camouflage allows them to sit on their nests without being seen by predators. Hens also have more feathers on their heads than gobblers do, which helps hens blend into their surroundings. While all gobblers have a beard, only about 10 percent of hens do.
  • Jake: This term refers to gobblers that are less than a year old.
  • Jenny: This term refers to hens that are less than a year old.
  • Lifespan: The average length of life for wild turkeys is just under 2 years, but they have been known to live for more than 5 years in the wild. The record is 17 years. A turkey is most vulnerable to predators and environmental elements during the first six weeks of its life.
  • Merriam’s: This subspecies of the North American wild turkey ranges along the Rocky Mountains and neighboring prairies of Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, south into Arizona and New Mexico.
  • National Wild Turkey Federation: The National Wild Turkey Federation is a private, nonprofit conservation and education organization founded in 1973 with a mission dedicated to conserving wild turkeys and preserving hunting traditions.The NWTF’s 550,000 members and volunteers, along with its wildlife agency and corporate partners, has helped restore and manage North America’s current population of more than 7 million wild turkeys. In addition, the NWTF has helped acquire or improve habitat on 13.1 million acres of public, private and corporate lands.Through its outreach programs, the NWTF family has helped thousands of children, women, and people with disabilities across North America learn new outdoor skills. The NWTF’s JAKES, Women in the Outdoors and Wheelin’ Sportsmen programs have helped people learn to better enjoy the outdoors as well as understand the importance of wildlife management and appreciate hunting as an honorable pursuit.
  • Nesting: Hens nest on the ground, often in places where they can hide among shrubs and other plants. They normally lay a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs during a two-week period. As soon as the young birds hatch after 28 days, they are ready to follow their mother to find food. By the time poults are 2 weeks old, they can fly into low trees to spend the night.
  • Ocellated turkey: A different species of turkey than the North American wild turkey, this species is found in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, northern Belize and the El Peten region of northern Guatemala. The bird is easily distinguished from its next-of-kin because the feathers of both males and females are a unique color combination of shimmering bronze and greens, and they do not have a beard. Spots on the tail feathers are similar to a peacock’s. Both sexes also have blue-colored heads that are covered with wart-like growths.
  • Osceola: This subspecies of the North American wild turkey is found only on the Florida peninsula.
  • Predators: Fox, skunks, snakes, bobcats, eagles, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, hawks and owls prey on wild turkey eggs and poults in their early stages.
  • Poult: This term is used describe a turkey chick until it is approximately six months old.
  • Purr: Turkeys make a soft, rolling version of this call when they are content, like when feeding. Gobblers also make this call in a louder, more aggressive form when they fight.
  • Push-pin call: This friction call consists of a small box with a rod that is pushed or pulled to make turkey sounds. This is one of the easiest and most effective calls to use for making basic yelps, clucks, and content and aggressive purrs. With one-hand operation, push-pins allow the hunter to minimize movement. Some models are also easily fastened to the barrel of a shotgun, and then operated with one finger while a shooter holds his or her gun. Shop ‘push-pin calls’ at Amazon.
  • Putt: The putt is a single note, generally perceived as an alarm. It can also be several notes delivered sharply or rapidly, which usually means the turkey has seen or heard something they don?t like.
  • Rio Grande: This subspecies of North American wild turkey roams throughout parts of Texas and into Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. It also has been introduced into California, Oregon, Washington and some other western states.
  • Rocket net: Biologists fire this rocket-propelled net over flocks of turkeys in order to catch and transfer them to areas where there is suitable habitat but few or no wild turkeys.
  • Roost: This term refers to trees turkeys perch in for rest and safety.
  • Roosting: This term describes the act of flying to an elevated perch at dusk to avoid ground predators.
  • Scat: This word describes turkey droppings, which can determine whether a turkey in an area is a gobbler or a hen. Gobbler droppings are shaped like a ‘J’ or a fishhook while hen droppings are a spiral-shaped pile. If droppings are old, they will crumble when touched. Fresh droppings are soft, which means a wild turkey was recently in the area.
  • Shelter: Turkeys like areas with plenty of trees because trees provide food, places to sleep and places to hide from predators.
  • Shock gobble: This instinctive gobble is a response to a loud noise such as a crow call or gun shot.
  • Sign: Tracks, scat, droppings, drag marks and feathers all are evidence that a turkey has visited a particular area.
  • Size: Male turkeys typically weigh 17 to 21 pounds, while females weigh eight to 11 pounds.
  • Slate (or pot and peg) call: This call consists of a small pot that acts as a sound chamber and is covered by a surface made of slate, aluminum, glass or other synthetic material. The pot is held in one hand, while a striker, also made of various materials including wood, glass and graphite, is drawn across the surface to make turkey sounds. Shop ‘slate calls’ at Amazon.
  • Space: Most eastern wild turkeys live their entire lives within five miles of where they hatched. They usually move less than two miles each day.However, turkeys do wander, and may roam 12 to 50 miles in a year.
  • Spurs: Jakes grow 1/2-inch or shorter spurs their first year. Two-year-old toms sport blunt spurs that measure less than 7/8 of an inch. By age three, a gobbler’s spurs can become sharp, unless worn down by rocky terrain. Gobblers living in areas with sandy soil tend to sport the sharpest spurs. The Merriam?s and Gould’s subspecies usually have shorter spurs than the other subspecies.
  • Strut: As part of their mating ritual to attract and impress hens, gobblers strut with their head tucked to their body, their feathers erect and their tail fanned.
  • Subspecies: There are five subspecies of wild turkey in North America.
  • Tracks: A turkey’s tracks tell which direction a turkey is moving. Tracks also tell whether the turkey is a male (gobbler or tom) or a female (hen) because a gobbler’s toes are wider and the middle one is longer than a hen’s. A gobbler’s middle toe measures around four inches.
  • Tube call: This call is made by covering one end of a small tube with latex. Tube calls were once crafted by hunters using old pill bottles. Shop ‘tube calls’ at Amazon.
  • Vocalizations: Turkeys use 28 different calls. For example, males gobble while females yelp and cluck.
  • Water: Turkeys drink from streams, ponds, and man made watering holes. Young turkeys also get water from the insects they eat.
  • Wild turkey release: At one time, wild turkeys almost disappeared from North America. Thankfully, biologists learned to catch wild turkeys in areas where there were many and release them in areas where there were few or none. By catching and releasing turkeys, state and provincial wildlife agencies, hunters and the NWTF helped build wild turkey populations to more than 7 million birds across North America.
  • Wingbone call: This call is made by joining the small bones of a wild turkey’s wing together, and it makes sounds by drawing air through the hollow bones. Native Americans created this call more than 4,000 years ago. Shop ‘wingbone calls’ at Amazon.
  • Yelp: This vocalization sounds almost like it is spelled. It is often delivered in a series of single-note vocalizations, and can have different meanings.

For more information, call (800) THE-NWTF.