April 2007
Featured Articles

Exceptional Sight and Hearing Make Stupid Turkeys Seem Bright

With a brain about the size of your thumbnail, turkeys really aren’t that intelligent. But, because of their unbelievable senses of hearing and sight, turkeys can sometimes seem smart. If you hunt turkeys long enough, you’ll probably be humbled many times by these "stupid" birds.  
By Todd Amenrud

Dumb as a rock, but with a sense of hearing and sight that blows ours away, a turkey is a wily rival in the springtime woods. It’s been said by some that "if a turkey’s sense of smell was anything like its hearing or sight, we would never get close to them." What can we do to combat their extraordinary eyes and ears?

First, lets discuss their eyesight. Turkeys have eyes that are seated at the sides of their heads. Because of this they have a much wider field of vision than we do. They can see over 200 degrees. That alone is amazing, but they also have perception, or focus, of that ENTIRE AREA! We can catch movement out of our peripheral vision, but can only focus on the area that we are directly looking at. A turkey can focus on their entire field of vision. Now, add in the fact that they can see color. In fact, they discern color many times better than humans. Their eyesight for picking up movement is also better than ours.

Their hearing is easier to fool than their sight. However, it’s been said by some experts that a turkey can pinpoint sounds a mile away. I tend to think even further than that. The instruments that make their hearing so phenomenal must be located inside their head. Because, unlike a whitetail that has two large cone-shaped radar funnels for ears, turkeys have only two small holes in their head. I guess we don’t need to know how; we just need to know it’s extraordinary, period.

  Decoys can help you fool their unbelievable eyesight. Good decoys will add realism, draw the attention away from you and give the birds a reason to come closer. The author prefers to add a strutting male decoy(s) to his flock. The competition usually will bring gobblers in to confront the decoy.
There are several things we can do to fool these two senses. First, camouflage– and I mean camo from head to toe. Remember, turkeys see color so pick a camo that breaks up your human form and also has colors that blend into your background. I don’t believe there is one perfect camo for all conditions. It depends on whether you’re hunting early season maybe on an oak ridge, combating late season with thick vegetation or possibly hunting a different state, maybe out West in more open terrain as to which camo is best. Here in Alabama and in our southern states for the entire season I like either Mossy Oak Obsession or their New Bottomland.

When I say camo from head to toe, that’s exactly what I mean. Cover up your face, your hands, anywhere there’s exposed skin. Human skin is like neon to a turkey. I don’t care for face paint, so I usually opt for a facemask. If you wear glasses pull the brim of your hat low enough to prevent glare.

Several years ago, I was guiding a fellow; he was a good hunter but had never tried for turkey before. We set up and I called in two different toms this particular morning.

One way to fool their hearing is to make sounds other than turkey vocalizations to coax them close. A turkey wing will work to imitate many of these sounds like scratching in the leaves or wing flaps.  
In both cases, when they got in to about forty yards their heads came up and they started doing alarm putts and the "turkey trot" in the opposite direction. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t figure out why. I went out and stood near the decoys to ponder what had spooked the two long-beards. Then I noticed two bright, white and red tube-socks that were revealed when this hunter sat down and his pant legs rose up. I figured it out. That’s why I say from head to "toe."

If you need to move, make it slow and steady. Try and do any repositioning when the bird goes behind a tree or other cover. Remember turkeys are dumb but they also seem paranoid. Any unnatural movement and they usually don’t stick around to see if every-thing’s going to be OK, they bolt.

For bow-hunters, we have to get away with drawing our bows. Blinds can be a good idea. Otherwise, decoys can help take the attention off of you so when the bird passes behind an obstacle you can draw.

  Bowhunters have an especially hard task of getting away with the drawing motion when the birds are in close. A blind can help to hide it, or decoys can draw the attention away so archers can make the necessary movement unnoticed. Here, author Todd Amenrud poses with a beautiful eastern tom.
When picking a spot to set up, one of the first things I look for are shadows. Pick a spot where you’re not right in direct sunlight if you can help it. It’s also a good idea to find a large object like a tree trunk or blow-down to set up against to help break up your human form.

Their hearing is great, but if you do things right it can be fooled. To me the whole essence of turkey hunting is calling the gobbler into bow or shotgun range. When calling you have to be able to make turkey sounds somewhat technically correct; but in my opinion, rhythm is the most important part of calling turkeys.

If you go to a calling contest and listen sometime, these people sound so pristine, crisp and clear that they actually sound better than a hen turkey. If you get a chance to listen to that ol’ hen sometime, her voice might be cracking and she may not make her yelp technically correct, but the rhythm is always on. The best teacher is to listen to a flock of hens and practice.

When walking in close proximity to turkeys, I really don’t worry about crunching leaves. A flock of turkeys makes a lot of noise when traveling through a dry forest floor. It’s the unnatural noises, or noises typical to predators, like large branches snapping, brush slap-back on noisy fabric or human voices that will do you in.

One way that I try to deceive their ears is to make turkey sounds other than turkey vocalizations. Think about the sounds that turkeys make other than yelps, clucks and the rest of their repertoire. Non-vocal turkey sounds can work when nothing else does. The sound of dry leaves when they’re walking or scratching for food, or maybe the sounds of wing-flaps as they fly down in the morning can add realism to your set-up. For these noises I carry a turkey wing. It works great for making all of the above sounds and I also use it when imitating a fight between two toms. In fact, I’ve used nothing but a wing to call in a gobbler before.

The one tool that can possibly help out in most turkey hunting situations is a decoy. I almost always use decoys. They give the birds a reason to come closer, add realism, draw the attention away from you, and, if needed, can also be used as a yardage marker. However, just one hen decoy may not do the trick. You definitely need one hen, but I feel a jake decoy (or another male decoy) is the most important decoy in my vest. I’ve never seen a gobbler leave a live hen to come to another hen decoy. But, I have seen them leave the real thing to come to a jake decoy(s) placed out near a hen decoy(s). I prefer one of the new models of full-strut decoys on the market. There are several companies that make one.

Scouting can also help you keep ahead of a turkey’s keen senses. Get out there and learn the terrain ahead of time. Study the lay of the land, preferred strutting zones, favorite feeding areas, where the potential natural hang-ups are and possibly their daily travel patterns. Scouting could possibly be the number one piece of the "success pie."

I also plant food plots for turkey. A plot of Clover Plus or some BioMaxx planted the previous year can make for some spring season hot spots. There are also plots that you can plant for whitetail that make excellent bugging habitat for turkey. They won’t eat the plants that you put in but they love the bugs that those plants attract. During the spring season however, it doesn’t get much better than a plot of Clover Plus as a reliable food source for turkey.

Instincts and superior senses can sometimes make it seem like a turkey is smart. They’ve got a brain the size of your thumbnail; they’re not very smart at all. However, if you hunt turkey long enough you’ll probably be humbled many times by these stupid birds. Persistence does pay off. If you find ways to get around their excellent hearing and exceptional sight you can score on a tom this season.

Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations, Territory Manager & Habitat Consultant for BioLogic.