Since the first week of April I had heard turkeys gobbling in the woods across from the house, but my license wasn’t good until mid-April. Not being able to hunt I had to be content to listen to the birds, and watch them feeding in the corn field south of the barn where the neighboring farmer spread manure every two weeks. The birds would arrive at the pasture about an hour after sunrise every morning, where they would feed for one to two hours before walking back up the hill and into the woods. After listening to and watching the birds for two weeks I knew what their daily pattern was. I was confident that I would be able to get a shot at one of the big toms by setting up between the woods and the pasture when my hunting season rolled around.
For several reasons I was unable to scout the week before my hunt, and although I didn’t see the turkeys I could still hear them gobbling once in a while during the morning. On the day of my hunt I set up a blind in the gully the birds used as they traveled from the woods to the cornfield. As the sky began to get lighter I waited, expecting to hear some tree yelps and gobbles from the ridge where the birds usually roosted. Although I waited in the blind until two hours after sunrise I never heard or saw a turkey.
I finally crawled out of my blind, walked to my truck, cased my bow, stowed my turkey vest, and started the truck. Determined to find the turkeys I followed the gravel roads that surrounded the woods where I hunted, stopping to glass the fields, meadows and pastures looking and listening for the turkeys. When I had just about given up I saw them; five toms and fifteen hens, feeding at the bottom of a wooded ravine that opened up into a soybean field. As I watched, the hens fed and the toms strutted and maneuvered for position in front of the hens. The birds fed in the field for about forty five minutes then began to move back into the wooded ravine, where they intermittently walked, scratched through the leaves and fed for another half hour before moving farther up the ravine and out of sight into the woods.
That evening I returned to the ravine about an hour before sundown to see if the birds were feeding nearby. If they weren’t I would drive around the woods, stopping near every ravine and ridge, where I would try to get the toms to gobble in response to my imitation of a bared owl call. Even though I didn’t see the birds near the ravine I stopped long enough to blow my owl call, when I didn’t get a response after the second try I took out my Haydel’s box call and shook it, making a loud gobble. There was an immediate response as one of the toms thundered a gobble. From the direction of the sound I guessed the birds were probably roosted in a group of large oaks on the north side of the ravine where they often roosted.
The next morning I moved my blind to wooded ravine, hoping the birds would roost nearby and then walk by my blind as they went to the soybean field to feed. The blind was setup and I was sitting comfortably inside about forty five minutes before sunrise. Twenty minutes later I heard my first soft tree yelp from the birds. Within the next ten minutes I heard at least seven series of tree yelps, but not one gobble. Wondering where the toms were I yelped loudly on my MADD aluminum slate call, then blew a fly down cackle with Knight & Hale mouth diaphragm. There was no response, so I repeated the sequence, making sure the calls were loud and clear. Again there was no response.
Ten minutes later I could hear the sounds of the birds as they moved toward me through the woods. the first thing I heard was the yelping of one of the birds, then the soft putts and purrs of the other birds, and finally the sounds of their feet as they scratched through the leaves thirty yards from my blind. There were fifteen hens, just like I’d seen the day before, but not a single tom. I watched the hens as they moved by. Then, fifty yards up the hill I saw the five toms, all of them strutting as they slowly walked through the woods. I had been hoping the toms would follow the hens as they walked by within shooting distance of the blind, but the toms had chosen to use another route, paralleling the hens twenty to thirty yards up the hill. All I could do was watch, listen and try to learn. I hadn’t brought my camera, so I couldn’t even take pictures. I’d found the birds the night before, set up in the right spot, had the birds come right by me, just like I’d planned. But, the toms wouldn’t respond to my calling, and they hadn’t been close enough for a shot. We’ll maybe next time.
That wasn’t the first or the last time I’ve been skunked while turkey hunting. But, the events of that hunt sparked my interest, and made me wonder when and why toms gobble, and when they won’t. Although the birds had been gobbling for weeks, they appeared to have shut down during the week that I hunted, and they hadn’t gobbled much on the roost at all, and I couldn’t figure out why. To try to find out the answers to my questions I calls Dr. James Earl Kennemer at the National Wild Turkey Foundation and asked if there had been any studies done on turkey gobbling behavior. He said that he knew of one such study and would send a copy of it to me. After reading the study I realized that there might be a number of reasons why the turkeys hadn’t gobbled during my hunt, because gobbling can be affected by temperature, wind speed, breeding behavior, and hunting pressure. To confirm these studies I decided to conduct my own research.
From 1998 through 1999 I spent 250 days and well over 1200 hours watching and listening to the flock of turkeys in that wood, and writing down everything I saw and heard. Every morning I would get up and record the time of sunrise, the temperature, wind speed, wind-chill, barometric pressure, sky conditions, and type and amount of precipitation. Then I would get to the woods an hour before sunrise and note every gobble I heard, and the time it was made. I would also note the time that the birds flew down, and where they went and what they did once they were on the ground. Most mornings I would stay with the birds until about 11:00 AM or until I could no longer hear or see them. Then I would go home and write everything down on my computer, and graph all my sightings and gobbling activity. The first thing I looked at was how normal gobbling and breeding activity occurs.
Phase 1: Pre-Breeding Gobbling Period
As the spring days become longer and the weather warms the toms start to gobble. The earliest gobbling is usually done by adult dominant males, and as the days grow longer more males gobble. The first gobbling activity begins about two months before the actual gobbling peak; as early as mid-February, in the south and as late as mid-March in the north. At this time both the hens and toms establish dominance. While the hens may not be willing to breed at this time the toms are, and they usually respond to hen calls, and may come in to a hunter. Because this is when dominance is established toms may also come to the sounds of a gobbler, in order to exert dominance.
Phase 2: Breeding Period/Gobbling Lull
As the days grow longer and the weather warms the hens become interested in breeding and respond to the gobbling of the toms by joining them and breeding. Because the hens are with the toms there is less gobbling, and gobbling activity is reduced. When the hens are close toms use displaying; strutting, their fanned tail and colorful head, and spitting and drumming to attract and keep the hens nearby. With more strutting there is less gobbling.
About a month after the toms begin to gobble most of the hens become receptive and gobbling activity is at it’s lowest. This phase may last from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on the number and sex ratio of birds in the area and the weather. This is when toms are the most reluctant to come to the call, because they are already with the hens.
Phase 3: Post Breeding/Peak Gobbling Period
As more of the hens are bred they begin to lay eggs; and the toms, still interested in breeding, begin increased gobbling activity. Approximately a month after the peak breeding period most of the hens have been bred and begin to nest; and gobbling activity reaches is highest point while the hens nest and the toms continue to try to attract unbred hens. It’s at this time that toms are most willing to respond to calling.
The Gobbling Lull/Breeding and Hunting Pressure
It has long been thought that the lull between the two peaks in gobbling activity was caused by breeding. Although this is one of the reasons there is less gobbling at certain times during the spring, it is not the only reason. A 1978-1981 study conducted in Iowa showed that the time frame of decreasing gobbling activity did not appear to strictly coincide with nesting behavior, and that there were pronounced decreases in gobbling activity due to hunting pressure. When gobbling activity declines it may be a result of breeding activity; a result of hunting activity; or both.
The lack of gobbling during my hunting period was probably caused by the fact that it was during peak breeding that year, when the toms were busy strutting and breeding, instead of gobbling and looking for hens. As a result of the hens being willing to breed, the toms stayed with them throughout the day, and roosted with them at night. Therefore, there was no reason for the toms to gobble to locate the hens, because they knew right where they were. It was probably also the reason I couldn’t get them to shock gobble in the morning, and why I couldn’t call them in. There was no reason for the toms to answer or come to my calls when what they were looking for was right in front of them. There was probably also less gobbling because the birds had been hunted for a couple of weeks, and they had figured out that there were hunters in the woods.