You probably talked with someone not long ago — maybe within the past few minutes. Wild turkeys communicate with one another almost constantly, too. Their language isn’t like ours, but knowing how to “talk turkey” can definitely help you draw birds into bow range.
We spoke to Mark Wiley, a turkey hunter of 10 years and a research biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, to better understand what turkeys say, and to learn how to use the right calls at the right times to help us hunt them.
Know Why Turkeys Talk
In the spring, turkeys communicate heavily to announce their presence to one another and a willingness to breed. They also call to establish dominance, to show that they’re content and to warn other turkeys of danger. Throughout the year, turkeys may also call to assemble into flocks, maintain spacing between one another and preserve a pecking order. Many of the sounds turkeys make can be replicated and used by a hunter to their advantage.
“The vocalizations of wild turkey are part of what makes the season really enjoyable and exciting for hunters,” Wiley said. “There aren’t a lot of hunting situations where you get to vocalize and impact the behavior of an animal and get a response from an animal. It’s a really neat part of spring turkey hunting.”
But how can you talk to — or back to — turkeys if you don’t know what to say? Credible sources, like the National Wild Turkey Federation, have conducted research to understand what sounds turkeys make to communicate different things. That is an excellent place to start, but Wiley encourages hunters to form their own opinion by observing turkeys firsthand.
“Go afield and observe turkeys,” he said. “Listen to the calls they’re making and pay attention to what they’re doing. Do they seem calm? Are they foraging? Do they seem agitated? If you hear a call and the bird is alarmed, that’s probably not a call you want to replicate. Take note of simple things like that.”
Turkey Caller’s Toolbox: 3 Sounds To Know
- Yelp: A plain yelp is a series of single-note vocalizations, according to the NWTF. It’s a basic turkey call that has different meanings depending on how the hen uses it. Wiley said it’s thought to be a simple exchange between birds or a call to seek out other birds. “Learning to do a good yelp will serve hunters well in most basic situations,” he said. An excited yelp is more rapid and louder. That’s best to get a reaction from a dominant hen or to lure a hung-up gobbler into view.
- Cluck: The NWTF says a cluck consists of one or more short, abrupt notes. Turkeys cluck in spring to get other birds’ attention. It basically means “come here.” Wiley said to cluck when you want to let other turkeys know where you are.
- Putt: The putt is a single note or several sharp notes that indicate alarm. It usually means the bird has seen or heard something dangerous. Wiley said this isn’t a call you want to use as you walk through the woods, but it does have a purpose for hunters. “When you have a bird within range and want to stop the bird for a good shot, the putt is useful because the bird will stop walking and stand at attention,” he said.
“(These three calls) are easy for a beginner to learn and can be put to use effectively right away,” Wiley said. “As you learn more about turkey calling, there’s a whole combination of different calls you can employ in different situations.”
Although Wiley urges new hunters to stick to the basics before moving on to more advanced calls, he said it is good to at least familiarize yourself with all turkey vocalizations so you can identify them when you hear them and better understand what’s happening in the woods. Those more advanced calls include the gobble, the assembly yelp, the kee kee run, the fly-down cackle and combinations of two calls, like a cluck and a purr.
A note about the gobble: Wiley says this is a difficult sound to master, and he doesn’t recommend using it even if you do nail it. “Gobbles draw hunters,” he said. “That’s not normally an ideal situation, especially for a beginner. If you draw the attention of other hunters, you might create a potentially dangerous situation.”
Don’t Get Discouraged — Be Patient
If you’re using basic turkey calls and not hearing birds respond, you might not be in a good area, or the turkeys might not be vocal that day (it happens). Scouting before you hunt helps ensure you’re in an area with birds, but if you found good sign and still don’t hear anything, that’s normal.
Wiley said the frequency of a turkey’s call varies for several reasons, including weather, phase of the breeding season and what’s happening in the woods. Sometimes a longbeard will gobble a few times in one minute. Other times he’ll gobble every few minutes or maybe not at all.
“Put yourself in a situation where you scouted an area and you know there are birds nearby,” Wiley said. “Then, you can be fairly confident that if you’re not hearing birds, it might just be a quiet morning. You can try yelping, but one of the most important things is to be patient.”
Wiley said he’s heard stories of hunters who have called, not heard anything in response, and kept moving — and then walked into birds and spooked them. “Had they waited 15 or 20 minutes, maybe they would have seen the bird come in,” he said.
If nothing is happening after some time, move to a different area or try a different property and start over. He encourages turkey hunters to practice with their calls so they sound as realistic as possible and also to find a turkey hunting mentor who can give advice and guidance.
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