Gobbling Dynamics

The ups and downs of hunting gobbling turkeys.

Capt. Spud Woodward | March 10, 2005

Our early morning attempts to locate a roosted bird had failed. After some walking and calling, Terry Adkins and I moved to a rye strip between two stands of planted pines. It looked like a perfect strutting spot, and we had seen some turkeys in the vicinity just the afternoon before. We staked out my hen decoy, Trixie, and took up position back in the trees.

After an hour or so of sparse calling, we had no reason to believe that a gobbler was anywhere in the vicinity. Yet, our instincts told us not to step from cover without sneaking a peek up and down the rye strip. Terry had just crawled to the edge of the planted pines when his back arched like a Halloween cat.

I knew he had spotted something. But, what was it — turkey, coyote, another hunter, or was he face-to-face with a rattlesnake? Terry slowly rocked back on his heels, put his two hands together thumb-to-thumb, and spread his fingers, mimicking the shape of a tail fan. Wrinkles at the corners of his eyes told me he was smiling behind his camouflage facemask.

On her third hunt for this Peach County gobbler, Tracey Will of Statesboro accurately predicted where the gobbler would go to feed when he flew down. By patterning the turkey’s habits, she put herself in position to call the double-bearded bird in.

Terry quickly retreated to his calling position, and he and I alternated with a minor concerto of soft clucks and purrs. After a very long 15 minutes, I caught my first glimpse of the bird. He was in full strut, and his head looked almost neon in the late-morning sun. A sharp cluck from Terry brought the bird out of his strut and into an upright stance. A load of Hevi-Shot 5s from my 11-87 terminated the turkey’s amorous advances.

After the obligatory handshake, we gave the turkey a closer look. We guessed it to be a 4-year-old since it had 1 1/4-inch spurs and a thick, 10-inch beard. When I hoisted the bird up to check its weight, I noticed that one wing hung at an odd angle. Upon inspection, we found that the wing bone was completely broken, with both jagged ends protruding from the skin. Yet, there were signs of healing around the wound, suggesting that it had been inflicted several days before.

Despite this obviously painful and disabling injury, the tom’s drive to reproduce was still strong enough to lead it to our calls and decoy. He just took the quiet approach to courtship, something that makes obvious sense. The last thing an injured turkey wants is attention from a coyote or bobcat!

While our bird’s lack of gobbling could be explained by a severe injury, every year novice and veteran hunters are frustrated when the turkey woods go silent. Why does this happen and what do successful hunters do when confronted with close-mouth gobblers?

Hormones, Hens, and Harems

As winter loses its grip, the days grow longer, and reproductive hormones course through the wild turkey’s bloodstream. Soon, fights break out among the mature gobbler flocks, and eventually a dominant bird emerges out of the crowd. Males that lose the dominance battle have two choices. They can remain submissive, stay with the dominant bird, and maybe even get to do a little gobbling along with some illicit breeding. Or, they can leave the flock, move to new territory, and advertise with gobbling to attract their own group of hens.

Typically, hens are not ready for breeding when the toms first start their gobbling serenade. However, within a week or two, they become more vocal and responsive to the lusty gobbles of the males. By mid- to late-March, flocks of dominant and subdominant males and hens have formed. These breeding flocks or harems travel and roost together. Soon, gobbling sharply declines.

During this phase of the mating season, it is typical to hear pre-dawn gobbling, but little or nothing after fly-down time. After all, gobbling is a form of long-range advertising, something the “henned-up” dominant bird doesn’t need to do. Instead, he relies on strutting as a form of enticement to the coy members of his harem. Each day, his mission is to breed with as many hens as possible while intimidating his competitors.

Most breeding flocks have a predictable pattern of movement, and the savvy hunter learns this pattern. This is just what Tracey Will of Statesboro did last year to take her first gobbler. On her third attempt to outsmart a Peach County bird, she positioned herself perfectly in a stand of pines between the roost and an agricultural field frequented by the flock. The double-bearded boss gobbled on the roost, and Tracey hit him with some hen music. Soon afterwards he hit the ground, gobbled a couple of more times, and put himself in Tracey’s sights.

This gobbler’s drive to breed was so strong that it responded to calling and a decoy despite the fact that it had a broken wing. The author (left) and hunting buddy Terry Adkins tag-teamed the bird along a rye strip .

Another tactic is to obsessively pursue the dominant bird. You might burn up a hunting season, put your career in jeopardy, and alienate your wife, but knocking off the boss bird has two benefits. Not only do you get the satisfaction of matching wits with an almost supernatural opponent, you’ll bring gobbler music back to the woods. When you take out the dominant male, it’s like reshuffling the deck. The remaining males will start gobbling in an effort to claim a share of their deceased leader’s harem and to assert themselves to other gobblers. This is a great way to be a hero to your turkey-hunting buddies.

By the beginning of April, mated hens will start nesting. They leave the breeding flock during mid-morning, lay a single egg, and then return in the afternoon. After 10 to 12 days (mid-April), the hen has a nest full of eggs and starts the 28-day incubation period. At this time, she leaves the breeding flock and no longer keeps company with the gobblers.

The dominant bird may play it cool as long as there are a few hens to keep him company. But once all the hens leave, the gobbler will have the wild turkey equivalent of a nervous breakdown. He’ll start gobbling more aggressively and will continue to do so until he attracts more hens or the urge to mate fades. Catch a bird in this frame of mind, and you’ll more than likely have to shoot in self-defense just to keep from being trampled. It’s easy to be an expert with one of these desperate toms.

The Young and Restless

As with most wild-animal populations, young turkeys outnumber older birds. However, the age and gender structure of a local population can change drastically from year to year depending on hatching success and hunter harvest.

While a good hatch bodes well for the long-term health of a local turkey population, large numbers of jakes can spell trouble for mature gobblers, often causing them to go quiet. John Frampton, director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and a veteran turkey biologist and hunter, related the story of watching a group of jakes terrorize a mature gobbler.

“I was set up in a wooded area that extended out into an agricultural field,” he said. “I watched a mature tom come across the field in response to my calling. He got within about 100 yards of my position when all of a sudden a group of six jakes came running out of the woods and surrounded him. Just like an old Western movie with Indians circling a covered wagon, the jakes circled the old long beard.

“Each time he moved to battle one of the upstarts in front of him, another of the jakes would hit him from behind. Eventually, they wore the tom down to the point that he had to run away. In all my years of studying and observing the wild turkey, I had never seen such a bold display of aggression by jakes.”

By comparison, a large number of yearling hens can mean opportunity for mature gobblers, but complications for the hunter. Often, these yearling hens are at the bottom of the pecking order and are the last to breed. With more hens to go around and available longer in the mating season, toms have no need to gobble aggressively. Instead, they keep company with the ladies from daylight to dark, gobbling only when they feel the need to do some bragging.

Like an abundance of yearling hens, older non-laying hens can cause trouble for hunters looking for the first gobble in the early-morning darkness.

“There are hens in the population that may not nest after having a clutch of eggs destroyed or after having been scared from a nest,” says John. “There’s also the possibility of having older hens that don’t actively participate in the mating activity but still remain part of the breeding flock. Although the gobbler may get frustrated with the lack of interest on the part of the female, he will continue to strut and display. Since he has female company, he doesn’t need to gobble.”

How’s The Weather?

The Eastern subspecies of the wild turkey is found from New England across the Midwest and down into the Southeast. Over such a wide range of latitude and longitude, the bird has developed an amazing ability to adapt to harsh climactic conditions. Yet, weather is one of the factors known to strongly affect gobbling.

At the beginning of Georgia’s turkey season, it’s not unusual for a late-season cold front to dive below the Mason-Dixon line. When this happens, atmospheric conditions can change drastically. Most of the time, rain and wind accompany the passage of a front, and both of these conditions adversely affect gobbling. In fact, scientific research has shown a negative relationship between gobbling and rainfall during the previous 12-hour period. After a drenching rain, wild turkeys seem to be more concerned with drying out their feathers and finding a good meal than romance. Cold air temperatures also squelch gobbling, particularly when temperatures drop below the freezing mark.

Toward the end of Georgia’s seven-week season, midday temperatures are soaring into the 90s in the southern part of the state and breaking the 80-degree mark in the mountains. Gobbling definitely decreases as the weather grows hot, but a diminished mating urge and not the air temperature explains this phenomenon. In April 2003, I hunted the Rio Grande turkey in Texas, and temperatures routinely reached the 90-degree mark, yet turkeys gobbled throughout the day.

Turkeys will stay on the roost longer on overcast, windy mornings and on cold days. It is not unusual for a breeding flock to stay in the tree well past normal fly-down time and until they can see the ground clearly. When they fly down, the flock will often head to open areas such as food plots, fields, or logging roads where their keen vision can work to best advantage, and where they can soak up the warmth of the sun.

Tooth, Claw, and Shotgun

Equipped with sharp spurs, strong wings, and a defiant attitude, an adult-male wild turkey is a formidable opponent for all but the largest and fiercest predators. Yet, harassment by predators such as coyotes and feral dogs can cause a tom to go silent.

“It is rare that a coyote or even a dog for that matter can kill a full-grown male wild turkey,” said John. “However, they can chase them from strut zones and feeding areas to the point that the gobblers become extremely wary about making any sounds while on the ground. As frustrating as this is, it makes perfect sense — why advertise your whereabouts to your enemy?”

On the flip side of the argument, there is some evidence that coyotes are effective predators of mammals that routinely destroy the nests of wild turkeys. They are filling the role that wolves used to play in the ecosystem. So, while this recent canine immigrant is unwanted, there may be some benefits to its presence in the Southeast.

Radio-telemetry studies of wild turkeys have shown the species to be remarkably adaptable to the presence of man. Turkeys suffer only temporary annoyance from logging and agricultural activities and can often be found near farms, airports, and other areas of human habitation. Many times, I’ve seen wild turkeys feeding next to I-95, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of vehicles passing them just a few yards away. Yet, despite familiarity with man, turkeys can become extremely skittish when pressured by hunters.

As if their vision and hearing weren’t enough, wily old gobblers seem to have a sixth sense that allows them to know the difference between a logger with a chainsaw and a camouflaged hunter bent on trickery. Once their suspicions are aroused, they instinctually go quiet. When this happens, the best locator calls and the most seductive hen sounds seem to fall on deaf ears. When you run afoul of one of these stubborn opponents, don’t panic because they can be outsmarted.

If you hunt an area where turkeys have gone silent in response to hunting pressure, try the following tactics. Get in the woods well in advance of fly-down time, maybe as much as two hours before. If you can, use a different route, leave your truck or ATV behind and walk the last mile or two to your listening post. Hold off on using your locator calls and give the gobblers a chance to make the first move.

When one does make that move with a lusty gobble, find a good calling location, and hit him with a very soft tree yelp. Then, put your call in your pocket and make him sweat. Unless the bird is traveling with hens, chances are you’ve got his attention. Soft clucks and purrs, some rustling of leaves with your hands, and a healthy dose of patience are the best tools for coaxing this bird into range.

Although man has been studying wild turkeys for several decades and hunting them for centuries, no one can explain why a turkey will gobble on some days and not on others. The efforts of scientists and amateur naturalists have certainly shed light on this mystery, but we are far from understanding the peculiarities of this fascinating bird. Perhaps it is best that we don’t learn too much. After all, we humans love a good mystery — especially one that involves a gunshot

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.