Turkey Hunting Articles

Turkey Biology

by T.R. Michels

I've always felt that the more you know about the biology of the animal you are hunting, the better you will be at understanding when and where to find it, and that will make you a better hunter. So let's talk turkey. Sight is a main means of defense against predators for turkeys, so they often use open fields and meadows as feeding and strutting sites; and wooded areas as mid-day loafing and roosting sites.

Turkeys eat a wide range of foods including succulent grasses and forbes (wild flowers), insects, leftover grains, fruits of the grape, cherry and black gum, and seeds including mast crops of acorns, pine nuts, juniper (cedar) berries, and new growth agricultural crops. In the winter turkeys rely heavily on acorns and seeds, branch tips of brush and trees, leftover grain crops; and they feed heavily in fields where manure has been spread, at corn cribs and feedlots, and at silage piles. In early spring turkeys often rely heavily on leftover grain in agricultural fields. Once the weather warms and new green growth appears they will begin feeding in pastures, river and creek bottoms, and hayfields and pastures, where they eat green forage and search for insects. Hens often seek out sources of calcium (such as land snails) for egg production in the spring.

The availability and location of roosting sites is a determining factor in turkey use of the habitat. If there are few or no roosting sites available, turkeys may leave the area or not use it. Turkeys prefer to roost in trees larger than the surrounding vegetation and will often choose roost sites on east facing slopes out of the prevailing winds. They also prefer to roost in heavy timber in ravines if possible: where they can be out of strong prevailing winds in winter, but they will roost in trees open to the wind.

In the southern states turkey roosting sites are often located over or near water. In western areas turkeys use fir, pine, spruce, cottonwood and large aspen trees as roosts. Eastern birds often roost in pines, elm, maple, box elder, large oak, and cottonwood. Mature toms often choose pines because the pines can reduce wind speeds by 50-70 percent. Eastern turkeys generally have several roost sites in their home range, and they may use different sites on successive nights. In limited and poor habitat, Merriam's turkeys often roost in the same trees on a regular basis.

Scientific studies have shown that turkeys often roost on an east or south-facing slope, about a third of the way down the slope where the winds are calm. East and south facing slopes also receive the earliest sunlight, allowing the birds to warm-up and be able to see early in the morning. In one study roost sites were often within one half mile of water, and five hundred yards of a meadow. This could be attributed to the fact that turkeys often feed before going to roost in the evening, and they don't travel far at dusk. The preferred roosts in the study were mature trees with open crowns giving the turkeys room to fly into the trees and move around. They also preferred trees with large horizontal limbs to roost on.

Vision scientist, Dr. Jay Neitz believes that birds see in trichromatic color like humans, and that many birds actually see four colors, because they see ultraviolet light as a different color than the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue seen by humans. This helps birds because they can detect ultraviolet light in low light conditions when humans can't.

Because turkey are a prey species their eyes are located on the sides of their heads, giving them a wide field of vision. But, because of their wide spaced eyes, turkeys sacrifice depth perception; they see very little in front of them with both eyes at the same time. As turkeys walk, their heads move back and forth, giving them two different angles of an object, which helps them determine the distance of the object. Because of their poor depth perception, turkeys have difficulty determining the relative size of objects.

Bird's ears are also located on the sides of their heads, and because they have no outer ear with a cup to enhance the sound in one direction, they hear sounds all the way around them. Sound received by one ear but not by the other ear helps the birds determine the direction of sounds, but not the distance of the sounds. Loud sounds are generally produced at closer ranges than quieter sounds, and cause turkeys to become alert.

This makes it clear why prey species (like turkeys) with widely spaced eyes and ears give an alarm signal first, often try to verify the danger with both their eyes and ears, and then flee. If they don't know which direction the danger came from they need to verify the danger, and the direction, before trying to avoid danger; or they may actually flee into, rather than away from it.

Daily Activity
Turkeys normally roost in trees at night, wake up about an hour before daylight, begin calling about a half-hour before daylight, and fly down from their roost from a half-hour to ten minutes before daylight. Once they are on the ground they usually look for food. If they land in wooded areas they may look for nearby food, but they generally move to an open feeding area within a half-hour. Whether they are in wooded, brushy or open areas, turkeys search for seeds, nuts, grasses, forbes and small insects on the ground.

I've seen a wintering flock of turkeys spend four hours in a cornfield in early spring, prior to the breeding season. However, the normal amount of time spent by large flocks or groups feeding in open areas is about an hour to an hour and a half. Then they move to a new opening, or into the woods. During mid-day the turkeys may loaf in wooded areas and fly up to roost. They generally begin to feed again in the late afternoon, and fly back up to roost about ahalf hour before dusk.

Reaction to Environmental Conditions
Cold, snow, rain and high winds may restrict turkey activity, in particular breeding. During extreme wet and cold or wet and windy conditions turkeys may not leave the roost, if they do they often leave later than normal. When snow depths inhibit walking and feeding turkeys may stay on the roost for several days. During my research I found that when wind-chill factors dropped below 34 degrees gobbling was reduced, and the turkeys often stayed in protected areas, on the downwind side of hills and woods, out of the wind and cold. They also sought protection in low-lying areas, and spent more time in the woods. If the weather warmed after a cold spell or storm, the birds often began to gobble later than normal.

According to noted waterfowl biologist, Dr. Jim Cooper, birds have numerous air sacs in their bodies and are able to detect slight changes in barometric pressure, which may allow them to feel approaching storms. Many hunters believe birds, including turkeys, feed heavily up to two days before a storm because they feel it is coming. This would allow the birds to wait out a storm and begin feeding after it passes.

During my studies I found that the normal pattern of the turkeys was disrupted the day after a storm, particularly if the storm began in the late afternoon, before the birds went up to roost. If the storm caused the birds to roost earlier than normal, they often did not make it to the trees they would usually roost in when they were in that particular area. Instead, they often roosted early and choose the first suitable trees they came to. They were often late getting to the nearest feeding/strutting area the morning after a storm.

Wind and Rain
Strong winds and rain can disable the turkeys ability to hear, which makes them reluctant to move. Strong winds also make it difficult for turkeys to move effectively. Rain is probably uncomfortable for turkeys, which causes them to seek shelter and restrict their movements.

Prevailing wind patterns may affect where turkeys roost. They often choose roost sites in ravines and on downwind sides of hills and wooded areas out of the wind. This may also affect their daily movement. Because turkeys prefer to take off and land into the wind they should leave the roost into prevailing winds, and land in suitable landing sites: open meadows or fields. Once they are on the ground they may continue moving in the same direction, until they reach protected areas. While prevailing wind patterns may influence traditional daily movement patterns, current conditions do prevail and determine to some extent the direction and location of turkey movement. The availability of suitable food sources at the time of the year greatly influences the direction of movement.

When strong winds or rain make it difficult for toms to hear other toms gobbling, they don't gobble in response as often as they normally do, consequently gobbling may be reduced on windy or rainy days. During my research I found that toms gobbled less than normal in the morning if it had rained within the last 12 hours.

Because turkeys rely on their sight for protection, any condition that reduces visibility makes the birds cautious. If the amount of light is reduced by clouds, fog, rain or snow, turkeys move later than normal in the morning, waiting until they can see effectively before they fly down from the roost. My studies show that turkeys fly down from ten to twenty minutes later than normal on cloudy or hazy days.

Turkeys leave a variety of signs wherever they go: tracks, droppings, wing drag marks, and scratches and dusting bowls in the dirt. Adult turkey tracks range from 2 to 3 inches in length: hen tracks are up to 2 1/8 inches long, toms tracks may be up 2 1/4 inches and larger. Mature toms leave a wider, deeper middle toe imprint, with the scales of their feet imprinted on the ground. Turkey droppings can be found under roosts, in feeding areas and along travel routes. Piles of droppings under large trees indicate roost sites. Hen droppings are pencil size or larger and bulbous or spiral in shape; tom droppings are straight or "J" shaped. Dropped feathers, wing scrapes in strutting areas and the shallow depressions of dusting bowls are all evidence of turkeys use. V-shaped scratches in dirt or leaf litter are evidence of feeding turkeys; the point of the V shows you which way the turkeys were facing when they scratched. the When you find sign, mark it on a map to use when you are hunting.

About the Author:

T. R. Michels is nationally recognized for his action-packed, informative seminars based on his experience as a wildlife researcher and professional guide.


Website: www.TRMichels.com