Talking Turkey Part 3 - Habitat and Anatomy with Aaron Hebeisen
For me turkey season starts about the time the ball drops on December 31 every year. I enjoy the preparation aspect of all hunts – the lead-up, e-scouting, trip planning, making of packing lists, and reworking those same packing lists – but I especially love the prep for spring turkey hunting. That magical time of year when the woods and prairies come back to life, the days stretch longer, and the weather is more cooperative than that of their fall cousins. Plus, the need to shake off the cabin fever of winter just seems to pair perfectly with the chance to chase after a prehistoric bird that talks back.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my hunting is the opportunity to learn more about the animals I chase – to interact and participate with them in their ecosystems. And, I believe, that in order to truly appreciate the rabbit hole that is turkey hunting, having some knowledge of their natural history and biology can help get you into the mindset before the season opens.
Pre-European contact, the wild turkey population in North America is estimated to have been around 10 million birds. By 1850, expanded development, reduced habitat, and unregulated market hunting decimated those populations.
By 1920, wild turkeys had been extirpated from 18 of the 39 original states they occupied, with populations as low as 200,000 birds nationwide by 1940. In the late 1930s, restoration efforts began and were focused on trapping and relocating birds to their historic native range.
Thanks to the conservation efforts of groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation, which was founded in 1973, funding from Pittman-Robertson dollars, and sportsmen and women, current estimates are around 6.5 million birds across the U.S. There are 5 distinct subspecies of wild turkeys- Eastern, Merriam’s, Gould’s, Osceola (Florida), and Rio Grande, which can be hunted in 49 states (sorry Alaska).
Turkeys were reintroduced to my home state of Minnesota through a trade with Missouri in 1973. The Minnesota DNR traded 85 ruffed grouse to Missouri Department of Conservation for 29 wild turkeys. I’m not sure who decided that conversation rate, but I think Minnesota came out ahead in the deal.
Wild Turkey Anatomy and Biology:
Wild turkeys are a crazy mashup of an animal. The reptile-like feet, horsehair-like beard, and iridescent feathers that change from blue to green to orange to purple make them incredibly unique in the animal kingdom, and even more rare amongst game species.
Here are just a few more of their unique features:
• Snood- An extended fleshy appendage that protrudes from the top of the beak used to attract mates. It turns red and elongates on males as they get excited. Vestigial (present, but useless) on females
• Wattles- Loose skin under the chin onto the throat. Similar to snood in that they are used by males to attract mates
• Caruncles- Red, warty growths on the head and base of the neck. More and larger caruncles is thought to mean more testosterone
• Spurs- Sharp spikes on the back of turkeys’ lower legs. Made of keratin, like human hair and fingernails. Spurs can be found on males and females, but larger and sharper on toms.
• Beards- fibrous, hair-like feathers in the center of their breast. Longer on older, more mature males. Though it is rare, males can sometimes have multiple beards, and thin beards can sometimes be found on hens.
A turkey's vision is arguably the most important part of the turkey anatomy to a hunter. Research has demonstrated that wild turkeys have 3 times better vision than a human in daylight. Plus, the location of their eyes allows them to have 270-degree vision, and to see 360 degrees when they turn their heads.
This makes good camouflage (be that your clothing or a blind/shroud) crucial to break up your human outline and blur you into your surroundings. I use patterns with drab browns, tans, and grays in the early season, and transition into more bright greens and yellows as the trees and grass start to bloom. In my area, First Lite Specter works excellent in the hardwood forests early in the season, and Sitka Subalpine is unbeatable once things start to get green.
As important as good concealment is, nothing will spook a turkey faster than movement. If you are sitting and calling, try to stay as still as possible. Any movement can make a bird give off the warning “putt…putt…putt” call, and you might as well stand up and wave to them, because they are probably already headed in the other direction.
I find it best to lay out all of my gear when I first sit down in the morning or have it easy to grab with minimal movement. This goes for calling too. Diaphragm calls offer a huge advantage over box and slate calls, because you can call to the birds using just your mouth and remove any hand movement from the equation. Plus, it allows you to have your gun up and ready when the birds are coming in.
Like vision, turkey also possess uncanny hearing, which make any sounds in the turkey woods a double-edged sword. The right hen calls can get a tom fired up and running in hard looking for love, while the wrong sounds can send them in the other direction.
Turkeys can hear long distances and can pinpoint exactly where that call is coming from. If you call up a turkey early in the morning, and he responds, that means he knows where you are. Be patient. If that male is on a hot hen, he might not be interested enough to leave her right away, but he likely will come back later in the day to come find you. It’s just a matter of how long you are able to wait.
When I’m scouting for turkeys, I’m trying to find the overlap of 3 things – food, water, and cover. As we’ve discussed, turkeys depend heavily on their vision and hearing for finding mates and avoiding danger.
Look for high points – ridges or taller hills – that are surrounded by trees with long, horizontal branches (like white pines or oaks) that can handle the weight of the heavy bird. Turkeys can see from a long way off and will pitch down from those roosts into safe, open areas to strut and display.
Oak stands also offer a good food source with acorns. Couple this with a nearby water source and topographic pinch points, and you've likely found a great spot to key in on when e-scouting. Put boots on the ground to confirm by looking for tracks, foot scratching, or poop.
Summing it up:
Wild turkeys are full of juxtaposition. They are beautiful while also being ugly. They are very intelligent and likely to outsmart you, but occasionally make dumb decisions that can leave you scratching your head. Finally, they provide some of the most and delicious protein in the woods, but can also be tough and dry if not cared for properly (find a few preparation and recipe ideas here).
Take your time before the season to learn about wild turkeys, their habitat, and the different ways to hunt and call them. Turkey hunting can take ridiculous levels of detail, but can also be one of the easiest, most approachable types of hunting to get into. Have fun, be safe, and good luck this spring.
About: Aaron lives in Southeastern Minnesota with his wife and soon-to-be firstborn child. He currently works for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers serving as a Chapter Coordinator serving North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. A wildlife biologist by trade, Aaron seeks a close interaction with wildlife, whether that is chasing elk and pronghorns in the western U.S., bowhunting whitetails, or calling in turkeys and waterfowl.