Reading Turkey Sign
March 16, 2004
The ability to recognize letters and the sounds they form with other letters opens a world of knowledge to the reader. Similarly, the ability to recognize animal sign and distinguish the sign of one species from another makes a hunter not just a better hunter but also a woodsman.
For spring turkey hunters, wild turkey sign can be obvious or subtle, visual or audible. “Each sign gives clues to the daily routine of the birds,” said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, Senior Vice-President for Conservation Programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Keep in mind, spring is the mating and nesting season for wild turkeys, and their daily routine revolves around mating. So, wherever you find hens, you’ll find gobblers. Recognizing and reading the sign can help put a hunter in the vicinity of a wild turkey tom.”
In the early morning, gobblers leave the roost hoping to soon find the company of hens. Try to put yourself within 100 to 150 yards of roosting toms. You can find wild turkey roosts by identifying roost trees and listening. Out West, tall timber areas littered with feathers and mixed with droppings indicates a good roost site. In the East, larger wooded areas make identifying roost areas a little more difficult as the birds have more places to roost. Look for likely roost areas such as creek bottoms and wooded ridges.
You can also listen for birds flying up in the evening. The most sure method, however, of finding a gobbler roost is to elicit gobbles from roosted toms, which are prone to gobbling in the evening to alert hens in the area of their presence.
You can get a roosted tom to gobble by hooting like an owl, howling like a coyote and cutting like a wild turkey hen. Use the hen call only if the other calls don’t trigger a gobble. Make sure your call is loud, and make sure you call from a distance far enough away that you don’t spook the birds with your presence. When the gobbler responds, identify the area where he’s roosted, and the following morning, set up within about 150 yards of his perch.
If you don’t tag a gobbler in the early morning, the hunt is not over. Identify areas where gobblers like to strut and other areas that comprise their daily travel routines.
In addition to seeing gobblers strut, you can identify strutting areas by learning to read the sign a strutting gobbler leaves behind. In addition to tracks, a strutting gobbler drags its wing tips on the ground. In sand or mud, the wing tips leave narrow, parallel lines.
Other sign to look for are droppings, tracks, scratching and dust bowls. An abundance of sign indicates that wild turkeys frequent the area.
Droppings not only alert hunters to the presence of wild turkeys but also indicate the gender of the bird. Droppings about two inches long and shaped like a shallow “J” are from a gobbler—a gobbler drops on the move. Hens, however, leave behind a small pile comprised of a single dropping.
Tracks also indicate the gender of the bird. Hens and gobblers leave behind three-toed tracks, but the middle toes of the gobbler are longer than his other toes. A single track measuring 4 1/4 inches or more from the tip of the middle toe to the heel indicates a gobbler, smaller than that it’s probably a hen.
Wild turkeys scratch in the leaves to reveal the insects and mast (acorns, etc…) that lies beneath. Scratching by wild turkeys can be identified by its V-shape. As they pull ground debris toward them with their feet, the wide end of the scratchings narrow to make a V shape as they pull back toward where they stand. The V shapes open forward in front of the birds as they scratch, indicating the general direction the birds were moving. You will find scratching along the forest floor and along the edges of limbs and logs lying on the ground. An area full of wild turkey scratching looks similar to an area rooted by pigs.
Dust bowls are easy to identify and make great places to sit, call sparingly and wait. Wild turkeys dust themselves to rid their skin and feathers of parasites. By repeatedly dusting themselves in the same site, the birds create a shallow depression, or bowl, in the soil. Wild turkeys dust themselves frequently.
In states or provinces that allow turkey hunting in the afternoon, roost sites come back into play as the day wanes. Wild turkeys tend to roost in the same general area. In the late afternoon, set up nice and tight to the roost area and catch a gobbler on its way back to roost.
The NWTF is a great resource for turkey hunting tips and other wild turkey information. Visit the NWTF’s Web site for information or call 800-THE-NWTF to become a NWTF member and receive one of their great magazines filled with turkey hunting tips and stories.