Understanding Turkey Communication 

Communication among wild turkeys is a combination of vocalizations, body posture, and movement. When you call turkeys you need to understand the meaning of their calls and when to use them.

by T.R. Michels

Hunters and game callers may not realize that communication among animals is not just sound, it is a combination of sounds, body posture, movement, and, in mammals, scent. The difference in the meaning between two calls that sound alike is often the body posture or movement of the animal making the call. 

When you are calling, you need to understand the meaning of the call, and when it is used. Unless you are using decoys, it is difficult for you to recreate the body posture or movement associated with the call.

Turkey Movement Sounds
     There are sounds other than calls that are associated with animals. The movement of the animal alone creates a sound that is associated by other animals as coming from a particular species or sex of animal. Turkeys have a way of walking and feeding that produces a particular sound; deer produce a different tempo and volume when they walk. Turkeys make a lot of scratching noises when they feed, along with the calls they make. If a turkey hears soft putts, purrs and whines along with the sound of soft steps and scratching it thinks a flock of turkeys is feeding.

     When turkeys fly down from the roost they often perform a call referred to as the "flying cackle." They also produce a flapping sound with each beat of their wings. A turkey hearing the combination of both wing beats and "cackle" thinks another bird has flown down from its roost. A turkey hearing a fighting purr expects to hear the other sounds associated with a fight. When two birds fight they jump into the air while they flap their wings and try to peck or kick and spur each other. When a turkey struts it often spits and drums. At close range the sound of the wing tips of a strutting tom may be heard dragging the ground.

     As you can see it's not just the call, but the other sounds, and the action or posture of the body, in combination with the call that relay meaning to other turkeys. You cannot recreate most of these movements and body postures, but if you know when and why they occur you can produce the calls and sounds associated with the movements and postures at the proper time.

Turkey Vocalizations
     An understanding of the different calls that turkeys use will help when you are trying to call turkeys. Turkey researchers have described as many as 20 different turkey calls. They fall into six basic categories: Agonistic, Alarm, Contact, Flying, Maternal/Neonatal and Advertising/Mating.

Alarm Call
     When a turkey becomes aware of danger it makes a loud, sharp Alarm Putt of from one to five notes that is used to warn other birds of danger; TUT, TUT, TUT. The call is a sign that a bird has seen a potential predator, and is usually followed by the bird running or flying away. Do not use this call when hunting turkeys.

Agonistic Calls
     Turkeys make a number of soft Putts, Purrs, and Whines while feeding. These calls are referred to as agonistic (as in agonizing, not antagonistic) because they help keep the flock in contact, while keeping them apart when their heads are down and they can't see each other. The birds are uncomfortable when they get too close; thus they are in agony, so to speak. 

When they make these calls they are saying, "This is my space, don't get to close." The Feeding Whine or Purr sounds like the call made by a feeding chicken; a soft errr. It may be followed by one or more Feeding Putts; a soft contented putt, putt. I use these calls shortly after I use a flydown cackle, to convince a tom that there are hens on the ground and feeding. I also use it on toms that hang up out of range, to calm them down.

Fighting Calls
     Fighting turkeys use an Aggressive Purr that is louder and more insistent than the feeding purr; the call is often interrupted by flapping wings, kicking and neck wrestling. Other turkeys hearing a fight often come running to see which birds are fighting, and which birds win and lose. The loser often drops down in the flock hierarchy, leaving room for the birds beneath it to move up. Any bird that has a chance to move up in the hierarchy will do so. The sound of birds fighting will cause dominants and groups of toms, even hens, to come running, so they can see which birds are fighting in their area. I use this call to bring in dominant toms or hens when everything else fails. 

Social Contact and Maternal/Neonatal Calls
     Because the Contact Calls are used most often between the hen and her poults they are basically the same as the Maternal/Neonatal Calls. When turkeys use these calls they are saying "Here I am, where are You?" 

The contact calls of young turkeys are the Lost Whistle, Kee-Kee and the Kee-Kee Run. These are all high pitched calls that change as the young turkey grows.

     The Lost Whistle is the sound very young birds make. It is a high pitched whistle; peep, peep, peep, peep. As summer advances the voices of the poults change and the Lost Whistle becomes the Kee-Kee; a lower coarser kee, kee, kee. It usually has three unevenly spaced notes in about a second, with each note .10 to .15 seconds in length. Many callers fail to recreate this call correctly by using only two notes, or by using up to five notes. Maybe the name of the call should be changed to the Kee-Kee-Kee. 

     As fall approaches the young turkeys begin to add yelps at the end of the Kee-Kee and produce the Kee-Kee Run. The Kee-Kee Run is the basic Kee-Kee followed by several yelps; kee-kee-kee, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp. The notes of this call are unevenly spaced, with each note from .05 to .10 seconds in length. All three of these lost calls are used by the young to tell their mother they are lost and to trying to get back together. I use these calls in the fall, after I have scattered a flock.

     Adult turkeys use many different yelps and clucks to keep in contact in different situations. Most Yelps are the same as the "Here I am, where are you?" call of geese and other flocking birds, which is used to keep the birds in contact with each other.

     The Tree Yelp is often the first sound of the day, a soft, nasal, three to five note call performed while the birds are on the roost before daylight. It is a soft chirp-chirp-chirp ... chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp, or a variation. There are usually three to four notes per second, with each note being about .08 seconds in length. This call is used by a bird when it is telling the others it is awake and asking if there are other birds nearby and awake. This is the first call I use in the morning, to see if there are toms in the area and still on the roost.

     The Plain Yelp is performed when the turkeys are within seeing distance of each other. It often consists of three to nine notes, all on the same pitch and of the same volume, with three to four notes per second, and each note lasting .08 to .10 seconds; chirp, chirp, chirp. I use this call when toms are up close, or within seeing distance of the decoys. 

     The Lost Yelp is much like the Plain Yelp but may contain twenty or more notes, and it becomes louder toward the end of the call. The bird's voice may "break" as it tries to make the call as loud as possible, which causes it to have a raspy sound. There may be from three to four notes per second, with each note lasting .10 to .15 seconds. 

     The Assembly Yelp is used by the hen in the fall to regroup the young. It usually consists six to ten or more evenly spaced yelps that are loud and sharp, with two to four notes per second, and each note lasting from .12 to .20 seconds. I often hear hens make a loud, long series of yelps while they are on the strut during the breeding phase. I am not sure if this is an Assembly Yelp or a Lost Yelp. But, I do know that toms often show up in areas where hens are making this call. I use Lost Yelps and Assembly Yelps to get a tom fired up on the roost, and to keep it coming once it is on the ground.

     The Plain Cluck is used by turkeys to get the visual attention of another bird. It is primarily a close range contact call, again saying "Here am I, where are you?" A bird making this call wants to hear another bird make the same call so they can get together. It is a sharp, short sound, similar to the alarm putt but not as loud or as insistent; tut...tut. The notes of the cluck are often separated by as much as three seconds, which distinguishes it from the faster, closely spaced Fast Cutt. I often hear hens use several soft Clucks and Purrs while they are feeding. It sounds like putt, putt, putt, errr, putt .... putt, putt, putt, errr. I use this call when a tom hangs up nearby, or to stop it for a shot. 

     The Fast Cutt, or Cutting, is one turkey using the "Here I am, where are you?" but telling the other bird "If we are going to get together you have to come to me." It is a loud insistent call, and the notes are strung together in bursts of two's and three's, with about a second between bursts. It sounds like; TUT...TUT...TUT, TUT. TUT .TUT, TUT...TUT...TUT, TUT...TUT... TUT, TUT... TUT, or any variation of clucks. The rhythm is somewhat like the Flying Cackle, and I have used a Flying Cackle to get a tom to "shock gobble." I also use this call to bring in a tom that hangs up.

Flying Call
     The Flying Cackle is the sound a turkey makes when flying up or down from the roost, or when flying across ravines. Many hunters have difficulty with the correct tempo of this call. Actually, it's quite easy; the calling of a bird in the air is directly related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, it's when the bird contracts it's chest muscles and exhales, it's the only time the bird can call. 

If you are trying to imitate this call visualize the action of the turkey as it takes off, first with slow powerful wing beats, then faster, and tapering off slowly before gliding and landing. I often use this call to get a "shock gobble" from a tom before daylight, so I can locate the tree it is in. I also use it to get a tom to come off the roost in my direction. 

Advertising/Mating Calls
     Tom turkeys Gobble to express social status, telling other males they are ready to fight to prove their dominance, and to attract hens. The Gobble is most often heard while the bird is on the roost early in the morning. Studies show that most gobbling occurs from about a forty-five minutes before to forty-five minutes after sunrise. Individual toms also call most frequently at this time. 

Gobbling is a means of long distance communication and the tom may expect the hen to come to him, if she is ready to breed. However, I often see toms arrive at the strut where the hens are already calling. Whether the toms are responding to the calling of the hens or not I am not sure. 

Use a gobble only when you are sure there are no other hunters in the area, because they may mistake you for a turkey. Hens in the presence of a tom may Whine, causing the tom to begin strutting. The medium pitched single drawn out errr of the Whine or Purr may be used by the hen to get the male to prove how large, colorful and healthy it is. I use this call when toms are close, to convince them there is a hen nearby. 

Advertising/Mating Sounds
     Once the tom is near the hen it spends more time strutting; displaying its colorful head, fluffed up body, and spread tail to impress the hen. When hens are within visual distance the less audible sounds of the Spit and Drum can be heard and used to attract them. It's believed that both the Spit and Drum are vocalizations. However, after watching toms snap their wings open on gravel, and hearing a sound like a spit at the exact same moment, I believe that at least some of the sounds that hunters refer to as the Spit may be the sound of the wing tips snapping open or hitting the ground. 

     Many hunters and turkey researchers have reported that a turkey's tail vibrates when the turkey drums. I do know that when peacocks display by fanning their tail they drum by vibrating the feather shafts of their tail together in what is called a "harmonic rustle." This made me wonder if the drum of a turkey is not also produced by some movement of the tail feathers vibrating together. When I asked Lovett Williams about this he told me he had heard an Ocellated turkey without a tail perform the drum, which suggests that the drum is not produced by the vibration of tail feathers. He was not sure how the bird produced the sound, or whether the spit and drum are vocalizations.

     On April 14, 2000, I had the opportunity to observe two domestic penned toms, and to solve the mystery of how these two sounds are produced. Luckily the two domestic birds were extremely tame and allowed me to get close enough to hear both the spit and drum as close as 6 inches away. As I sat near the toms I could hear them inhaling and exhaling deeply, and noted that when the Spit was performed the bird opened it's mouth and expelled air. This Spit was often followed by the drum; a low volume, deep pitched humming sound. 

     I noticed that the tom's body, especially the tail, vibrated when the drum was produced. When I put my hand on the bird's body I found that the chest (not the lungs) was inflated, suggesting that the birds have large air sacs beneath the skin of the chest region. This area was warm to the touch and I could feel it vibrate when the drum was produced. As a result of this I suspect that the Drum is produced by some movement of the air within the sacs of the bird's chest. 

Because the Drum may be produced in the same way as the "booming" of a Prairie Chicken, it may eventually have to be renamed the "Boom."     Groups of toms, and dominant toms, may respond to the Spit and Drum of other toms out of dominance. But, subdominant toms and jakes may be scared off, because they are afraid of being attacked by a dominant.

*This article is an excerpt from the Turkey Addict's Manual  ($14.95) by T.R. Michels. 

For more information on specific seminar titles and times contact;

T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors / T.R. Michels Guide Service, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983, 
507-824-3296, trmichels@yahoo.com, www.thehunterseye.con/trmichels
To List Of T.R. Michels Articles:

T.R. Michels
T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized big game researcher, and outdoor writer and speaker. He is the author of the Whitetail, Elk, Turkey and Goose Addict's Manuals, and the Deer Addict's Manuals. He is the innovator of the Moon Indicator, which predicts peak monthly movement of deer and elk, based on the forces of the moon. T.R.'s latest products are the 2002 Revised Edition of the Whitetail Addict's Manual, the 2002 Revised Edition of the Elk Addict's Manual; and Whitetail Notes and Activity Factors. 

For a catalog of books and other hunting aids contact:

T.R. Michels 
Trinity Mountain Outdoors
PO Box 284
Wanamingo, MN 55983

E-mail: trmichels@yahoo.com
Web: www.TRMichels.com

To List Of T.R. Michels Articles:

T.R. Michels
T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized big game researcher, speaker and writer. He is the author of the series Whitetail, Elk, Turkey and Goose & Deer Addict's Manuals and the innovator of the Moon Indicator.
T.R.'s latest books, available for 2001, are the Deer Addict's Manual, Volume 7: Hunting Tactic; the Scrape Addicts Manual; and the Outdoorsman's Cookbook, Volume 1 and 2. 

T.R. Michels 
Trinity Mountain Outdoors
PO Box 284
Wanamingo, MN 55983

Web: www.TRMichels.com
E-mail: trmichels@yahoo.com

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