Outdoor Articles

Turkey Communication

by Pursue The Outdoors on June 25th, 2005 in Turkey Hunting

I’d been hearing a group of turkeys gobbling since a half-hour before daylight. They first responded to my soft tree yelps by gobbling from the trees where they were roosted, and within fifteen minutes I heard them fly down. Once they were on the ground the toms began to gobble again. To try to get the toms to come in my direction I used a Wing Thing flapper call, to simulate the sound of a turkey flying down. Then I blew a Flydown Cackle on my Haydel’s mouth diaphragm. That’s when the fun began, I’d perform the Yelp of a hen turkey and the birds would respond. I’d wait a few minutes, and then I’d yelp again.

At first it seemed like the birds were coming closer, but after an hour of calling I wasn’t so sure. I finally decided to take a chance, and blew a loud series of insistent Cutts. There was an almost immediate response as a tom gobbled back. Minutes later there was another thunderous call, but it didn’t seem any closer. I called to the tom for another fifteen minutes, but it wouldn’t come in. In desperation I tried one more tactic; I began to putt and purr softly, and then I began to rustle the leaves on the ground beside me, like a turkey scratching for food. Five minutes later a big tom came around the corner of the woods, spotted my decoys, and went into a strut.

Hunters sometimes forget 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 turkeys you need to understand the meaning of the call, and when it is used. And, unless you are using decoys, it’s difficult for you to recreate the body posture or movement associated with the call you are making.

Movement Sounds

There are sounds other than calling associated with all 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, walking deer have a different tempo and volume. Along with the calls they make, turkeys make a lot of scratching noises when they feed. If a turkey hears soft putts, purrs and whines along with the sound of soft steps and scratching in the leaves, it thinks a flock of birds is feeding.

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When turkeys fly down from the roost they often perform the Flying Cackle, and 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, like the flapping of wings as the birds jump into the air and try to peck or kick and spur each other.

When a turkey struts, it often performs the Spit and Drum. The sounds of these two actions have been described as a chump and a hum, which are probably more fitting names for these sounds. The sound of a turkey’s wings dragging on the ground can also be heard at close range when a tom struts.

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 the meaning of the call to other turkeys. You cannot recreate most of these movements and body postures while hunting, but if you know when and why they occur you can produce the calls and sounds at the proper time.

Turkey Calls

An understanding of the different calls that turkeys use helps 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/Aggressive, Alarm, Contact, Flying, Maternal/Neonatal and Mating.

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 to each other; thus they are in agony, so to speak. When they make these calls they are saying, “This is my space, don’t get too 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.

The Aggressive or Fighting Purr is louder and more insistent than the Feeding Purr. It is used when one bird gets to close to another, often by a dominant tom that wants to displace a lesser bird. If the subdominant does not move the dominant may peck at it or jump up and slap it with a wing, toms may try to injure the other bird by using their spurs. This call is often interrupted by flapping wings, kicking and neck wrestling.

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. The loser of a fight often drops down in the social 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. I use this call to bring in dominant toms when everything else fails.

Alarm Call

When a turkey becomes aware of danger it makes a loud, sharp Alarm Putt of from one to five notes; TUT, TUT, TUT, that is used to warn other birds of danger. The call is a signal 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.

Social Contact and Maternal/Neonatal Calls

Because the Social 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 to a lower pitch as the turkey grows.

The Lost Whistle is the sound very young birds make when they are separated from the hen. As summer advances the voices of the poults change, and the Lost Whistle becomes the Kee-Kee, a lower-pitched, coarser kee-kee-kee. As Fall approaches the young turkeys begin to add yelps at the end of the Kee-Kee to produce the Kee-Kee Run. The young turkeys use these calls when they are trying to locate their mother and the other young birds.

The Lost Whistle is a high-pitched whistle, peep-peep-peep-peep. The Kee Kee usually has three notes strung together, kee-kee-kee. 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. The Kee-Kee Run is the basic Kee-Kee followed by several yelps, kee-kee-kee, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp. 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 turkey 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, which is 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 lasting about .08 seconds. This call is one bird telling the others it is awake/asking if there are other birds that are nearby and awake. This is the first turkey 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, but louder than the Tree Yelp. I use this call when toms are up close, or when they can see the decoys.

The Lost Yelp is much like the Plain Yelp but may contain 20 or more notes, and becomes louder toward the end. The bird’s voice may “break” during the call, 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 in the Fall by a hen turkey to get the young birds to regroup. 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 in.

The Plain Cluck is used by a turkey 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 these calls when a tom hangs up, 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 both calls to get a tom to “shock gobble.” I also use Fast Cutt to bring in a tom that hangs up.

Flying Call

The Flying Cackle is the sound a turkey makes when it is flying up or down from the roost, or when it is flying across ravines. Many hunters have difficulty with the correct tempo of this call. Actually, it’s quite easy. The call of a bird in the air is directly related to the downbeat of the wing stroke, it’s when the bird contracts its chest muscles and exhales, and it’s the only time that 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 the tom is in. I also use it to get a tom to come off the roost in my direction.

Mating Calls

The Gobble is the sound a tom turkey makes to express dominance and a willingness to breed. It sounds like a loud rattling, gobble-obble-obble-obble. The Gobble is most often performed in the spring during the breeding season. Toms usually begin gobbling from the roost from 30 to 45 minutes before sunrise, and gobbling usually continues until about 45 minutes after sunrise, but it may continue intermittently throughout the day. Toms perform most of the gobbling, and dominant toms usually gobble more than subdominants. Gobbling by dominant toms is thought to suppress gobbling by subdominant and younger males, therefore jakes gobble less than toms.

Toms use the Spit and the Drum while they are strutting. After watching toms snap their wings open on gravel, and hearing the sound the sound of the wings hitting the ground, I believe that at least some of the sounds referred to as the Spit by hunters are the sounds of the wing tips snapping open or hitting the ground. But, there is also another sound referred to as a Spit.

Until I discovered that turkeys might have air sacks in their chests in the spring of 2000, most turkey researchers and hunters did not know how the Spit and the Drum were performed. I had asked several turkey biologists, including Dr. James Earl Kennemer of the Nation Wild Turkey Federation, and turkey researcher Dr. Lovett Williams, Jr., how these sounds were made, but neither man was sure. However, they both thought the Spit and Drum were vocalizations.

I was able to hear both these sounds at less than a foot while watching a couple of domestic turkeys. As I watched the toms I could hear them inhaling and exhaling deeply. Then one of the birds opened its beak and expelled air in a loud “phit” sound. Almost immediately I heard a low humming sound and noticed that the bird’s body, and particularly its tail, vibrated. It appears that the Spit may be a loud exhale, and that the Drum may be the result of air movement from air sacks in the bird’s chest, similar to the booming of a prairie chicken or sharp-tailed grouse.

When the tom first went into a strut it was too far out for a shot. So, I purred softly on my Haydel’s double reed mouth diaphragm. The tom stopped strutting and craned its neck, looking for the hen it couldn’t see. When it walked closer, and began to strut again I touched my release. I smiled, knowing there would be deep fried turkey breast and wild rice for supper tonight.

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