Into The Mind Of A Turkey

Posted on April 23, 2019



The apologies that precede discussions about wild turkey intelligence are definitely not warranted. I have never observed another animal making such a dedicated effort to know and to understand. – Joe Hutto – Illumination in The Flatwoods


Say what? Many would argue that it doesn’t take much to crack that nut. However, despite the oft presumed injudiciousness of America’s greatest game bird, those premises have little basis once inside that walnut-sized cranium.

It has always been my objective to learn as much as possible about the animal that I pursue. That education can and does come in many forms: reading from other’s interactions, videos, hunting, and the one that has served me best, personal observation.


Because I was introduced to turkeys late, my learning curve needed to be sharp and quick. While hunting served to fill my bag, those interactions all revolved around getting a bird in front of my gun. If I really wanted to find out what made these fowl tick, it would require spending large quantities of time around them, in their natural setting, observing what they do and making attempts to understand why they behaved how they did in every given circumstance.


The single best way to make observations covertly is watching through a long lens attached to my camera. This method accomplished the proverbial “killing two birds with one stone”: It has provided me a ringside seat to the turkey’s world, as well as thousands of images of birds in action.


Eleven years ago, I made the decision to begin following turkeys from the start of March through the typical spring hunting season, which comprises the month of May here in the Northeast.

For example, slipping down through a hedge row during a late winter snow made my steps quiet and revealed turkey tracks. And sure enough, there huddled within the underbrush were the distinctive black forms, which contrasted greatly against the white backdrop.


While setting the tripod and kneeling behind the big lens, I happened to look up, and oh how glad I was that I did! There, perched upon a roost was a hen. But as I discovered, this was not just a hen, it was a bearded gal. It was a rare find, and a great photographic opportunity as I shot her entire flight down.


Although coming onto this may well be considered a lucky find, I will say it was no accident as to where I was looking based upon past experiences and knowing where the turkeys prefer to travel. Joe Hutto in his book, Illumination in the Flatwoods, vividly conveys the nuances that I too have enjoyed despite our observations being in two very different parts of the country; his in North Florida, mine in Southern Maine.









“I am astounded by the wild turkey’s ability to determine distance and direction and I have learned that a spring gobbler who answers my call from a quarter of a mile away needs no other sound from me” Joe writes. “If he chooses to come, he will know almost exactly from what bush or tree trunk the call came. Even through dense terrain, I have had turkeys come on the run from such a distance and stop within twenty yards, then begin examining my exact location for the source of the yelp.”


Hutton goes onto to explain, “Vision in wild turkeys, although acute, may be no better than human vision. Where wild turkeys excel is in their ability to detect movement…Hearing is (equally) acute in wild turkeys, although it is difficult to study. I do find, however, that sounds in general, although never ignored, may be tolerated, provided they do not have dangerous associations.”

And now Joe arrives into my world when he continues, “I have experimented with odd noises sounded from a blind while photographing wild turkeys. Often, when exposed to the most ridiculous noises, a wild turkey will listen and attempt to observe the origin of the sound; if no alarming association can be made, he will gradually begin to ignore it. Wild turkeys can be very attentive to camera noises for a short time, but if the photographer is completely concealed, the sounds will eventually be ignored.”
I have personally found the more frequently you return to the same location to photograph the turkeys, they seem to accept you as just part of the landscape; at least as long as you are not moving about.


Joe continues, “One sure way to disturb or frighten wild turkeys, ironically, is with a turkey caller. They seem very limited in their tolerance for meaningless yelping. They usually regard the human voice as something to be feared as well.

“It has always been my impression that wild turkeys rely principally on instinct and profound sensory acuity for survival and adaptation. Two things have surprised me, however. One is how elaborate and complete inherited information is in wild turkeys, and the other is that they do have well-developed cognitive abilities. It appears that wild turkeys begin with a genetic program of adaptive information and then set about gathering the details specific to their particular environment. Every day I see that the most important activity of a young wild turkey is the acquisition and assimilation of information. It is the food they are most hungry for. They are curious to a fault, they want a working understanding of every aspect of their surroundings, and their memory is impeccable. They gather specific information about a particular environment, conspicuously apply that information to a framework of general knowledge and make appropriate choices in modifying their behavior.”

Mind over Matter

It really matters not how many calls you may have in your vest, whether you are a championship caller, (turkeys don’t really care about our credentials at making attempts to mimic the sounds they make) have the most realistic decoy spread, or if you are wearing the latest camouflage pattern that completely renders us invisible, at least to human eyes. To understand how all our weaponry works is to know how turkeys work (live).


The longer and/or louder you call has no bearing on a gobbler responding. And at the risk of alienating many in my audience, I will say that I have never heard hens making some of the noises being uttered by champion turkey callers or possible using some of the calls being sold today. But I digress…

More important than tone, inflection or the right call is having a Tom either curious or fired up enough to come investigate. And when he does, whatever call you are using at that point is the right call for that specific bird. It may not work the next time, but it doesn’t have to.

It has been my experience that once I have a Tom responding to my call, I need to keep him interested. Each time I yelp or cut, and he responds, I put a little more excitement in my inflection. On the other hand, if he doesn’t vocalize much, no amount of further enticement will convince him to gobble. That is not to mean he will not come, it means he will do so silently. Unless you’ve got a bird fired up, calling less is best.

Have you had mornings where getting out of bed was a chore? How about going to work? We go through the motions without much enthusiasm. And then there are those mornings, usually weekends or hunting days, when we vault from the bed, have a spring in our step and race out bent on conquering the world. Everything is exciting. Welcome to the turkey’s world!


What I have learned while observing/photographing this grand bird is to generally wait and see their activity and hear the conversation of the birds. If they are gobbling, then I will gobble back. If the hens are yelping, I will yelp back. For instance, this very morning as I was photographing three strutting long beards, with a group of hens in front of them, that gobbled once. I thought, “Let’s see if I can get them to that again and photograph them doing it.” I broke out a gobble and instantly the trio reverberated with a series of gobbles, all captured on the cameras flash card.


All the observational information that I have gathered has benefited me profoundly while actually on the hunt with gun in hand. And no, I never hunt where I photograph, even though I could; I just can’t bring myself to eliminate birds that have benefitted me in so many ways. This knowledge, although powerful, is yet no guarantee of success on any given day. And for the record, although they are turkeys and act like turkeys (watch one try to get through a wired fence sometime) they still make enough right decisions to be smart enough and challenging enough for me.

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Posted in: Turkey