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Turkey Hunting Articles

Spring Turkey Activity

by T.R. Michels


Even though the first day of the spring turkey hunt was cloudy, and a cold wind was blowing I headed for the soybean field where I had seen a flock of turkeys appear just after daylight for the last two weeks. I was fairly sure the birds wouldn't show up because of the weather. 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 not talking.


Luckily, I had been researching this particular flock for more than two years and I had a good 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 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 Feather Flex decoys and quickly made my way to the edge of the woods on the west side of the small field. 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 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 I wasn't sure if I could hear the birds, 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 calling 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 birds would have offered an easy shot at fifteen yards.

Research
As a guide, writer and seminar speaker it's my job to know when and where to find game animals on a regular basis. After hunting for more than thirty years I have learned a bit about animals. Reading magazine articles and attending seminars also helped. Then I began to talk to researchers and biologists throughout the United States. After reading several of their research papers I realized there was much more to learn. So, I decided to begin doing my own research.

Like most hunters I have had days when I felt I had chosen the right day, the right spot, and the right time to hunt, and still didn't see anything. I was fairly sure the weather had a lot to do with game movement because of some of the research I had read. I knew that turkeys often roosted on the downwind side of a hill to get out of cold winds, and from my own experience I knew that they often flew down later than normal on cloudy days. But, I wasn't sure when or where the birds moved when the conditions weren't right.

That's when I began watching the flock of thirty-four birds a half mile from my house. For two years I watched, listened and learned the movement of the birds. From the middle of March to late May I would go out in the evening to find out where the birds roosted. The next morning I would arrive an hour before daybreak. In a notebook I wrote down the date, temperature, wind speed, wind-chill, sky conditions and precipitation. Then I would record the time and number of all the gobbles, any other calls the birds made, how many hens, toms and jakes I saw, what they did and when they did it, how long they did it and where they went, from sunrise to as late as 1:30 PM. What I learned has allowed me to see more birds, find the birds on a regular basis, and get closer to them.

My studies show that several different meteorological conditions affect when and where turkeys move on a daily basis. These conditions include; the temperature or wind-chill (whichever is lower), the wind speed, amount and type of precipitation, and the cloud cover.

Light, Cloud Cover
One of the first things I noticed during the study was that the birds flew down from 10 to 20 minutes later than normal on cloudy days, and the dominant toms usually flew down later than the hens. Turkeys rely heavily on their sight to alert them of danger, and because they are daytime animals, they wake up when the sky begins to get light, and wait to fly down until they can see well enough to detect danger.

Temperature/Windchill
On cold days the birds flew down later than normal, and on occasion they waited until after it had warmed in the mid-morning hours before coming off the roost. Once they were on the ground they often sought areas that were open to the sun, usually out of the wind, where they were warmer because of solar radiation. During extremely cold weather they sought food sources out of the wind, and fed for several hours before they returned to the woods. I often saw them feeding on top of an open corn crib, at a silage pile not far from a cattle barn, and in a field where the farmer spread cattle manure every few days.

Precipitation
A research paper sent to me by Dr. James Earl Kennemer of the NWTF stated that when there had been precipitation during the last 12 hours, gobbling activity was reduced. That started me wondering if rain affected the movements of the bird as well, so I began to pay particular attention to when and where I heard and saw the birds on rainy days, and on days after it had rained. The first thing I noticed was that when it was raining, or had rained during the night, the birds flew down later than normal. If it had rained during the night, but wasn't raining in the morning, I often saw the birds sitting in open areas out of the wind, especially if the sun was shining, with their wings outspread, trying to dry out.

If it was still raining in the morning the birds often stayed in wooded areas later than normal, and fed and rested in wooded areas with sparse or low ground cover. When the vegetation was wet they preferred to stay on game rails, old roads, and in areas with low vegetation. If the birds came out into the open to feed they used areas with low vegetation; new growth meadows, picked agricultural fields and pastures. But, not all birds are alike. The state wildlife habitat manager and I were reviewing our habitat improvement program one day when we saw a hen standing in the middle of a gravel road in a pouring rain.
I also found that the birds were late on their daily travels if it had rained in the last twelve hours. When the skies were still cloudy the morning after it had rained, the birds flew down later than normal, and arrived at traditional feeding/strutting areas later than normal, later than they did when the skies were cloudy but when it had not rained. When it was both cloudy and raining in the morning the birds flew down even later still.

I didn't understand why the birds were so late after it rained until I watched them feeding one afternoon. They were in a soybean field about a half mile from a group of white oaks where they often roosted. When they were in this area the birds usually fed in the field on the east side of the woods, moved around to the south side of the woods, and then flew into the trees about 50 yards from the field edge. The next morning they would fly down from the trees and land in the bean field, about fifty yards from the edge of the woods.

On this particular evening the turkeys had been feeding for about a half hour when it started to rain. Within minutes the birds moved into the woods, and as it continued to rain they flew into a group of elms, where they roosted for the night. Because it was raining in the afternoon, before the birds normally roosted, they had stopped feeding earlier than normal, flew up into trees they didn't normally use, and roosted earlier than normal. Because they were farther away from their traditional feeding/strutting area the next morning, they couldn't fly down into the field like they normally did. Because it rained during the night the birds flew down later the next morning. When they did fly down they landed in the woods, and eventually worked their way to the soybean field. But, they got there about an hour later than they normally did.

There were several times during the study when it rained in the afternoon before the birds flew up to roost in a one of their normal roosting areas. When this happened the birds flew down later than normal the next morning; they often used different travel routes than they normally used; they were more likely to feed in wooded areas; and they usually arrived at open feeding/strutting areas later than normal.

Wind
When it was not windy the birds often roosted on the upper two thirds of east or south facing slopes. I suspect this was because the prevailing winds were easterly, and because the birds might gain the benefit of late evening and early morning sunlight. When there were strong winds, or when it was both cold and windy, the birds roosted on the downwind sides of slopes or wooded areas, in heavy cover if the could. In areas where there are conifers, turkeys often roost in them during cold weather. On windy days, especially when it was cold or rainy, the birds usually fed in areas out of the wind; low-lying areas, wooded areas, and the down wind side of hills or woods. When they did feed in areas open to the wind they ate quickly and then moved into protected areas earlier than normal.

Gobbling Activity
I also noted there was far less gobbling on windy and rainy days. I suspect that high winds and the sound of the rain make it hard for the birds to each other, causing them to gobble less in response to each other. I also found that the birds responded less to my calling on windy and rainy days, probably because they couldn't hear my calls.

Spring Turkey Movement
Spring is when turkeys begin to move from their winter to summer ranges. However, this shift doesn't happen at the same time each year, 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 ranges are several miles apart the move may take weeks, with the birds advancing only as far as new foods become available. The only way to determine where the birds are on a regular basis is by scouting the area from a week to a day before you hunt.

High Use Areas: Roost Sites and Feeding Areas
The best way to find turkeys on a regular basis is to pattern their movements. In order to do this you need to thoroughly scout the area you intend to hunt, key areas to look for are roosting sites and feeding areas. Studies by several researchers show that turkeys prefer to roost out of the wind when possible, in areas that are open to the early morning sun. I often find roosts on east and south facing slopes, on the east and south side of wooded areas, or in other areas open to the sun but out of the wind. 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 where ever they are available.

Preferred food sources depend on the time of the year. In early spring, before the snow has melted or new green growth has appeared, turkeys often use agriculture fields shortly after leaving the roost. Unplowed fields of corn and soybeans will we be used frequently as long as grain is still available. Grain fields that have been heavily grazed by cattle, or that have been plowed under will less use by turkeys. Fields and pastures where cattle are fed on a regular basis are frequently used by turkeys as they search for leftover food and pick through cow droppings for undigested grains. The birds will also feed on leftover acorns and other mast crops where available. Once the weather warms the birds will begin frequenting CRP and agricultural fields, pastures and open meadows in search of grasses, hay, alfalfa and winter wheat. They will also use south and east facing slopes and creek bottoms where they feed on insects and newly grown forbes. Scratching in leaf litter in wooded areas, where new forbes have been eaten, is a sure sign or a turkey travel route.

Turkey Activity
During your 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. While you are scouting carry along a topographical map or aerial photo of the area and a notebook. Mark the areas where you see sign. When you hear or see birds note the time and weather conditions, and the number, sex and location of the birds in your notebook. Then mark the area on you map or photo. If you can, watch the birds several times before you hunt, so you know the areas where they normally roost and feed. Watch more than one flock if you can, so that you have back up birds to work if you can't find your first choice.

Know where the birds fly down, when they leave their favorite roosting areas, where they feed when they are in that area, and the route they usually take when going to the feeding area. You should also know where they go after they leave the early morning feeding area. Generally the birds will stay in an open feeding/strutting area a half hour or more before moving to another area. They may move through wooded areas, feeding as they go, and arrive at another open feeding area; or they may stay in the woods. Knowing where they go when they leave the early morning feeding/strutting site will give you the opportunity to hunt the birds later in the day.

Look for birds going to roost the night before you hunt, so you know where to find them the next morning. If you see birds feeding in open areas within a half hour of sunset they will usually roost nearby, and they may return to feed in the same area the next morning. If you don't see any birds drive around to likely roosting areas and try to get the birds to shock gobble in response to a crow call, owl hoot, pileated woodpecker call, or gobble. Once you have found a roosting area figure out where the birds will likely feed the next morning, and the travel route they will take. The next morning setup along the travel route or in the feeding area. If the weather is nice expect the birds to feed in unprotected areas. If it's windy, cold or rainy set up in protected areas, and expect the birds to call less, call later than normal, and to move later in the day than they would on warm sunny days.



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.

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Website: www.TRMichels.com