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Reading Turkey Body Language
written by JT Uptegrove

Watching an old gobbler strut his way into gun range can be both thrilling and nerve racking, especially if he gives you the slip.
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Turkeys have to be the least predictable game animal I know of, but if you learn enough about their behavior, you can certainly foretell some of their actions. Body language and vocalizations all play a part in forecasting what the gobbler will do next.


If my impatient youth taught me anything, it was how to scare the wits out of a wild turkey. I look back and realize those lessons were like slaps in the face, but overall it made me a better turkey hunter. Instilling terror in all but a few of the gobblers I encountered showed me a lot of facts about those birds. And that kind of education is invaluable now.


On one such occasion, I set out in high hopes well after sunrise. I walked along the overgrown edge of a rolling bean field adjoining a hilltop covered by timber. The site was a well-known roosting area of birds in years past. Both my father and I had foiled the plans of a smitten gobbler at the same location, but I wasn't prepared for what Mother Nature was dumping in my lap this time.


The entire ordeal unfolded in about 45 seconds. After shoving the decoy stake in the ground, I decided to throw out a loud cutt while trying to shape the decoy into something that might resemble a hen. But in my usual fashion of acting before thinking, I left myself unprepared for the trio of gobbles that echoed at my back. Instantly I froze, then turned my head so I could barley see the three longbeards emerging from the timber over my shoulder. There I stood in the wide open wearing my decoy like a hand puppet.


The only way the hunt could be saved was to get the decoy out and get myself hidden. The foam hen had to be sacrificed. Even though she was still crumpled and half flat, I impaled her on the stake and dove for cover. I crawled for the nearest tree and assumed the offensive once again. I was practically unhidden against a sapling, and the fake hen looked as though she'd been mashed by a truck and propped up on a crooked stick. Surely the wariest bird in the wild would laugh its tail fan off at the mere sight of the entire scene.


Apparently, my less-than-graceful disappearing act went unnoticed. The birds carried on unfazed. I sat motionless as they closed the distance to about 8 yards from my decoy. This would have made a beautiful shot had it not been for the sapling limiting my barrel swing to about 1 inch toward the full-strut triplet. I would have to wait for the birds to stand next to my decoy for any shot at all.


Of course, the eager toms laid on the brakes about 3 feet short of my shooting lane. I watched as they deflated and studied my mangled decoy, the gangly shape of a hunter, and then blinked several times. I instantly recognized the hesitant, nervous look as it was one I'd received many times in my younger days while approaching a girl for her phone number. And it meant only one thing -- they were going to run away. Then came the dreaded putt, and seconds later my hen and I were all alone once more.


Most seasoned turkey hunters know the sound of a putt means the situation is going awry. If you've ever spooked a turkey, the telltale sign is a warning putt -- followed by a scattering of birds. The sound serves as a vocal warning to other birds that danger is present. Typically the situation unfolds when a gobbler approaches your position. All seems well, and the bird may even be strutting. When all of a sudden he stands tall and belts out a single sound, "Putt." He will most likely remain still and survey the situation for just a moment before he streaks off for parts unknown.


Once a turkey vocalizes his fear it's usually over. The trick is to keep them around long enough for the shot. That involves knowing how to deal with a turkey before the situation gets that far along. In almost every instance where a turkey has performed its putt-and-flee tactic on my setup, they give signs of anxiety first.


The posture of an approaching bird is a dead giveaway to how it feels about the situation. A secure tom will approach in one of two fashions: walking at a steady pace with its beard dragging the ground, occasionally standing to gather an eyeful; or in full strut, taking several steps at a time then stopping to display. Either way, the pace is normally steady and constant.


On the other hand, a fearful bird will exhibit an entirely different personality. The approach is painfully slow -- stopping to meticulously study every facet of the surroundings. This certainly doesn't mean the bird can't be finished into range. Turkeys are apprehensive by nature. Even comfortable birds can appear hesitant, but a turkey that stands tall and meanders back and forth instead of coming to your call is definitely uneasy. The best way to deal with this kind of bird is to stop calling with yelps and cutts. Instead use calming calls like very subtle purrs and low-key clucks. Scratching in the leaves can also be convincing.


Once a bird is near or in gun range, keeping a careful eye will reveal how uneasy the bird becomes. You should know if the situation is falling apart long before the bird gives any kind of vocal warning. Dead giveaway No.1 is wing flipping or twitching. If I notice even the slightest amount of wing shuffling in an approaching longbeard, I will change my strategy. Like a bad poker player, an approaching turkey will display this nervous tick at the slightest sign of discomfort.


Although most folks wouldn't give a turkey credit for being very smart, they regularly escape the most experienced hunter. The first sign of danger won't always send a gobbler soaring into the next county. Instead, they will sometimes restrain their fear and saunter into heavier cover. Once they reach it, you can plan on never seeing them amble out. I know time and again when things looked very promising and the turkey was coming in at a steady pace, then abruptly changed its angle where it would pass behind something obstructing my view and never pop out the other side. The disappearing act is a hard one to pattern, but an unexpected turn towards cover is a sure sign of a vanishing act about to happen.


Hunters will always make mistakes. And when it's obvious that a turkey is uneasy and isn't going to hang around long, play it to your advantage. Don't give them the chance to make the warning putt. Do it yourself. Make a loud, sharp and clear putt. In essence, you're just buying time by confusing the bird. If the bird believes another bird is making that warning, he will look for it and maybe even move towards it for safety. It's a last-ditch effort to get them the last few yards into gun range or in the open for a clear shot.


Turkeys are apt to change their mood at a moment's notice. Sometimes a wise old gobbler will turn tail on you for no apparent reason. But there is always a cause for their fear. Odds are it was movement, calling or location that the bird didn't like. Once the turkey gives me the slip, I will make the effort to find out what scared him. I'll walk out to exactly where he stood and observe things as his eyes would have seen it. If nothing looks abnormal, then it's probably the location or calling that didn't suit him.


Observation is part of great woodsmanship. Calling in turkeys that are all fired up has its rewards. But there is a lot of satisfaction that comes with anticipating a tom's next move and duping him. Reading turkey body language isn't difficult; it just takes learning by example and adjusting how you handle the situation the next time it's presented to you. 

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