Understanding Spring Turkey Behavior + Scouting Tips

ArrayApril 2, 2021 at 5:34 pm

Spring turkey hunting is an excellent way to celebrate the end of winter. It’s a fun, interactive hunt, providing plenty of opportunity across the state. On March 24, the Department hosted a live panel discussion with three MDIFW staff members and avid turkey hunters: Turkey + Other Game Bird Biologist Kelsey Sullivan, Fisheries Resource Supervisor Liz Thorndike, and retired Rec Safety Coordinator Reggie Read. Here’s a recap of that conversation: 

When it comes to scouting for spring turkey, it’s important for hunters to consider turkey behavior. What behavior should hunters expect from spring turkeys?

According to Kelsey, this time of year, winter flocks are starting to break up a bit. The flock dynamics are changing. Jakes (juvenile males) are going away from the bigger flocks. Toms (mature males), hens (mature females), and jennies (juvenile females) are sticking together. Jakes will probably be hanging out in groups together on the edge of where bigger flocks may be.

Spring turkey hunting season doesn’t kick off until May 3rd, so where you see birds now doesn’t mean that’s where you’ll see them on opening day. By mid-April, they are where they are going to nest. The Department has radio telemetry data that shows some females will nest up to 28 miles from where they were in the winter. But, if a location, such as a farm, has all kinds of food resources, they may breed and nest in that location, for example.

In the spring, females are running the show. And the males are working hard for female attention. In the morning, especially on sunny days, you’ll see male turkeys strutting. The warm weather will get them keyed up, so they may be more active. Their behavior, more than anything else, revolves around mating and pre-nesting. 

What is turkey sign? What is someone looking for?

Kelsey explains there are visual and auditory signs to look for in the spring as indicators of turkey activity. 

In the spring, turkeys are looking for acorns and seeds that dropped last fall and are hiding under debris. On sunny days, turkeys will linger along the forest edge abutting a clearing and dig at the ground looking for this food. As a result, a scouting hunter may find large patches of Earth scratched up by the turkeys.

According to Kelsey, these patches could be as big as 10 feet long and 3 feet wide. In these patches, you’ll see scratched up Earth and leaves/debris rotated over. Keep in mind, deer do something similar when they’re digging up their food sources. So, in addition to the scratched-up patches, you’ll want to look for turkey prints in the mud. Another good indicator of turkey is their scat. Kelsey describes their scat as looking like “brown and white cheese puffs.” You can tell the sex of the turkey by the shape of their scat—female scat is curly and male scat is a J shape. 

Auditorily, 2 weeks prior to the hunt, go to the areas you’ve been scouting early in the morning—around 4-5:30 am. If you’re quiet and undetected, you will hear gobbling. Around this time of day, turkeys are roosted—usually in the lower branches of pine trees on the edges of fields—and they will call from their roost. 

If someone is looking for a place to go turkey hunting, what are some options?

Liz offers several options for hunters.

Wildlife Management Areas: The Department manages over 100,000 acres of land, referred to as Wildlife Management Areas, many of which are open to hunting. If you want more information about accessing WMAs and maps of the areas, check out our new interactive WMA map. Bureau of Parks and Lands offers many land resources for the public to utilize for hunting.

Land trusts: Many land trusts allow hunting, but you should be sure to check with the land trust to make sure the method of harvest and target species are allowed on their land. 

Private land: Maine is over 90% privately owned; private landowners graciously open their land to hunters every year. Being a good land user means always asking permission, following the laws and rules, and thanking landowners. Not only is speaking with landowners the right thing to do, it can help you as a hunter. Landowners may have insight into where they’ve historically seen turkeys or turkey sign, for example. Learn  more about best practices for finding out who owns the land you may be interested in hunting on, and what you should ask.

Remember, you’re sharing the landscape with other hunters and recreators. It’s important to have a few options lined up. If you see the spot you picked out is already in use or crowded, have a plan B and a Plan C. 

What are some considerations when scouting for turkey? What should someone look for on the landscape?

Reggie, a longtime turkey hunter and hunting educator, will check out some of the locations he has permission to hunt. He will look for turkey sign and even for turkeys. He spends a lot of time listening. He goes early and frequently, checking different spots at different times of day. He’s not just looking for turkeys, he’s also looking for places to set up, and familiarizing himself with the landscape. 

When you go out turkey hunting, you’re going very early in the morning, and it’s usually dark. You’ll want to be sure the place you have picked is a place you can access safely. You’ll want to set up against a large tree and maybe even mark the spot with flagging tape—for your use and so other hunters know you’re in the area. 

When scouting, should you call to the turkeys?

All three panelists caution against overcalling. While searching for turkeys, some hunters will do test calls to get a sense of turkey activity in the area. Unfortunately, this will train turkeys to be wary of such calls and make them less likely to respond. A better option when scouting is using a locator call—such as a crow call—which will spook the turkey into making a noise in response. These calls don’t train turkeys to be wary of hunters calling but can help give you a sense of where they’re at during pre-season scouting.

The night before you go out to hunt, go to your spots and roost birds—this means you’re checking out those fields where you’ve seen turkey sign or turkeys in groups. As the turkeys fly up to the trees to sleep for the evening, you’ll have a great idea of where they’re going to come down at night. This gives you an advantage. You can pick a safe place to set up in the morning that conceals you from the turkeys, and doesn’t spook them on your way to your spot.

What are your techniques for picking a good spot to set up? What are some things for people to keep in mind?

Safety first. According to Reggie, safety is number one. Always make sure you have a clear line of sight and you’re not firing toward a home or another hunter. Make sure your back is to a big tree and you’ve flagged the area with orange tape or fabric to indicate your location to other hunters.  If you plan to leave gear, such as a ground blind, you must label it with your name and contact information. 

Conceal your location from the turkeys. Keep in mind, Kelsey warns, turkeys have incredible eyesight. They’re very wary and will know if something doesn’t seem right. Turkeys can see red, blue, and white colors very well—so dress in dark colors or camo. Conceal your face with a mask or paint. Conceal your location with shrubs or a blind. 

Turkeys have such precise eyesight; they can see someone blink. They will notice the glint on your glasses or your firearm, so keep all that in mind when setting up. 

Reggie reminds hunters to keep an eye on the position of the sun—you don’t want the sun coming up and shining a spotlight on you or interfering with your line of sight. 

Is turkey hunting a good place to start for new hunters? 

According to Reggie, turkey hunting is an excellent place for new hunters to start. It’s exciting, interactive, and requires less equipment and know-how than other big game hunts. He encourages new hunters to find mentors or hire registered Maine guides to show them the ropes (and likewise encourages seasoned hunters to take out newbies, whether it’s friends, family, or coworkers).

He also warns new hunters about ticks. Tick safety is very important when exploring the woods of Maine during any activity. Hunter should wear long sleeves, tuck in the loose ends of their clothing (such as their pants into socks), and safely treat their clothes with permethrin following the instructions on the container. After your hunt, always check your clothes and your hairline. 

Liz often takes her son out hunting with her and reminds mentors to be patient. New hunters of any age may get excited or feel intimidated. Don’t pressure them, make sure they’re comfortable with the firearm, and make the experience as rewarding as possible—even if it doesn’t result in bagging a bird. 

If someone is new to hunting, what are some first steps for them?

The first step for any hunter is to complete a hunter safety course. There are many options—from traditional in-person classes to a fully online format.

Then keep learning, hunter safety is just the start! The Department and partners are offering a slew of Next Step Hunting programs to help educate adults on hunting opportunities. Find an upcoming workshop here: mefishwildlife.com/nextstephunt

Joining a fish and game club or an online community is another way to learn from and connect with other hunters. Traditional fish and game clubs are sprinkled across the state. Other groups, such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers do not have traditional meeting locations but have online communities that provide resources and organize meet-ups. Facebook groups such as the Maine Women Hunters group connect hunters together based on interest, learning level, or target species.

Those interested in getting started may also hunt with an apprentice license, which requires the license holder to hunt with a license holder.

Click here to watch the panel discussion on YouTube.