Deck … Understanding wild turkey roosting habits and habitats will help you find and kill more birds.
By Tom Carpenter
Have you ever been pooped on by a turkey? My turkey hunting career was in its infancy when the following hunt took place, so I have two excuses for the outcome: extreme turkey hunting exuberance, and a very literal interpretation of some sound advice.
Wild turkeys roost in trees as a defense against predators. Find these roosting areas and you’ve found a good place to begin your morning hunt. (Photo: GettyImages.com)
The exuberance part was this: I was working for maybe my fourth or fifth gobbler ever. My turkey hunting energy knew no bounds (still doesn’t), and over the winter I had finally drawn a coveted South Dakota prairie tag.
So here I finally was, in turkey heaven on the first evening of an early May hunt, glassing a verdant alfalfa field from my stomach atop a grassy knoll a couple hundred yards away. Not one, not a dozen, not two dozen, but 26 gobblers were spread out along the river bottom, amongst gaggles of hens and a gang of raucous jakes. I had never seen such a thing in my life.
My assumption was that the birds were going to roost in a line of cottonwoods. I also assumed (rightly so) that there was no way to get ahead of them now. So I bided my time, watched, studied turkey behavior, and waited for hours as the sun slowly descended into the long evening. I would hunt the birds in the morning, but I had to see the spectacle of them going up to roost, and confirm where they would be doing it.
Here’s where the advice part came in: As the sun hit the horizon, some of the turkeys started running. Worries that I had somehow spooked them were quickly forgotten though. The birds were merely using the flat field as a runway, taking off from 40 or 50 yards away, and sailing up into cottonwood branches.
Soon the whole flock was up there carrying on. Hens clucked and yelped. Gobblers gobbled. They all jockeyed to settle in on their own comfortable, horizontal branch. As dusk descended, I glassed a blowdown in the treeline for my morning setup and trudged out.
All of the turkey hunting advice I had ever gotten was to get almighty close to birds on the roost, to give gobblers as short and distraction-free a route as possible to your setup.
So I was in the field early. Extra early. More than an hour before shooting light. Sneaking in slowly and noiselessly, I could see turkeys silhouetted against the starry sky. I found my blowdown, settled in quietly and closed my eyes to wait.
And close I was.
About an hour later, something woke me from my slumber. Plop. Foop. Pit. Pat. Right on my hat. What? Rain drops? The sky was as clear as a bell! Then it dawned on me in the coming dawn: Turkeys were relieving themselves of last night’s forage, and I was directly in the firing line.
The insults didn’t end there.
First, a few clucks broke the morning’s silence. Then some soft yelps, followed by a cacophony of sassy hen talk. Soon, lusty gobbles rattled up and down the river corridor, echoing back and forth off the hills. Birds started flapping and sailing down … far out into the field, right where they had fed, jostled and strutted last evening!
I called. I pleaded. I prayed. I begged. But all I got was dozens of turkey butts walking the other way, up into the hills from which I had watched the birds go to bed.
It All Starts at the Roost
Classic turkey hunting is a roost game to start every day in the field. Understanding turkey roosting habits and habitat is a critical step to hunting success. Gobblers are often at their most vulnerable early in the morning, when their libidos are high. Hen talk can bring them sneaking, strutting, jogging or charging in … if there aren’t real hens around to distract them. While a day’s hunt is never over once the sun is up and the turkeys have eluded you, it certainly makes for a great day if you can shoot your bird early.
But roosts are easy, right? After all, wild turkeys just find a tree at dusk and flap up into the branches, and that’s that.
Wrong! Turkeys have evolved with specific roosting habits and behaviors, and precise habitat preferences. Throw different geographies and subspecies into the mix — a West Oklahoma river bottom (Rio Grande) is a much different place from a Florida swamp (Osceola) from a Connecticut woodlot (Eastern) and a Colorado mountainside (Merriam’s) — and roosting becomes mighty interesting real fast.
Let’s explore wild turkey roosting: how birds approach a roost in the evening; how they spend the night; tendencies birds follow when they drop back down to the ground in the morning; and the location and structure of trees they prefer, along with some of the most-used roost tree species and situations.
All for a Good Night’s Sleep
Wild turkeys roost in trees at night as a defense against predation. For a bird this big, trying to hide on the ground would make it highly vulnerable to coyotes, bobcats, foxes and other predators. The only predatory threat to a turkey in a tree would be a raptor (owl, hawk, falcon or eagle), but only owls are active at night. And at that, most owls — even great horned and great gray owls — are unlikely to make a pass at something as large as an adult turkey.
The notable exception to tree roosting occurs when hens are incubating their eggs, and for two to three weeks until hatched poults can flutter up to tree branches to spend the night. Wild turkey poult survival rises from about 30 percent or less to 75 percent or more once the young birds can roost off the ground.
Wild turkeys are notoriously quiet and secretive during the evening as they approach a roost site. Birds feed during late afternoon, and as sunset nears, a flock will string out and march silently right to their roost, usually without making much of a peep that would attract unwanted attention. Some hens will talk when they’re safe in the branches, and spring toms will even belt out some gobbles. Birds will often flap, flutter and hop about in an attempt to get into a comfortable position for the night. As it gets dark, turkeys tuck their head under a wing and go to sleep.
In the morning, turkey behavior is a different story. Daylight is expanding instead of fading. Lonely springtime gobblers are feeling their oats and sounding off to attract hens. Hens yelp, cackle, cutt and generally yack to one another to organize the flock for the day. Some of this turkey conversation continues after the birds flutter, flap or sail to the ground; but in general the longer birds are on the ground, the quieter they become again.
The first step to hunting turkeys off a roost is finding a roost. With much of spring’s gobbler hunt focused on the first and (where legal) last hour of daylight, it pays to develop insights into wild turkey roosting habits. While the rules of the roost are not etched in slate, the following concepts will narrow your search for a preferred roosting site and provide insight regarding how the birds use it — steps toward a successful hunt.
East- and northeast-facing slopes are prime roosting areas everywhere turkeys live — protecting birds from prevailing westerly winds. The east-facing aspect also allows dark-feathered turkeys to soak up the sun’s early, warming rays. Check out hills, knolls, knobs, humpbacks, hogbacks and sidehills. Turkeys often choose trees about two-thirds of the way up a slope, but birds don’t like to be skylighted above the crest.
Turkeys will fly into a tree from above, or from another slope, and it might take you a couple of days to figure out how the birds utilize an area. Setting up super-tight to a roost tree isn’t always best. Many times, I’ve watched birds sail a quarter-mile across a canyon or draw for their morning landing. In flatter country birds usually flutter straight down in the morning. Turkeys prefer a relatively clean and open area around the roost — better to see what’s below.
In the South, turkeys often perch over water for additional safety. In the open prairie, where trees are at a premium, wooded riverways and the trees around old homesteads make prime roosting sites. In West Texas, I have seen birds roost on power poles.
In general, wild turkeys prefer a tree with a branch-free “bole” or trunk for at least the first 20 to 30 feet; this foils ground-based predators from climbing. Older and larger trees (20 inches or more trunk diameter) are preferred. I’ve seen birds roost in cottonwoods that three men couldn’t wrap their arms around … and in mesquites that looked like they couldn’t support a quail! Sturdy branches that grow out at horizontal angles are requisite for easy perching. Structure can drive the roost tree species that turkeys prefer.
Locate concentrated droppings and feathers on the ground and you’ve found a roost site. Sometimes birds use the same roost daily. More often, turkeys work a circuit of roost sites, especially in big-woods areas. Roosts are often near feeding areas, because birds forage hard during the early evening and after coming down in the morning.
Second Time’s a Charm
I spent the rest of a glorious blue-skied day hunting turkeys amongst the grassy mounds and oak ravines of the river breaks. But the gobblers had plenty of hens to follow, and no toms would break off to my calls. No matter: In the back of my mind, I knew where they were roosting, and I had a good backup plan.
Fast learner that I am, the next morning I set up on the opposite side of the alfalfa field, at one of two cuts that served as a turkey travel corridor through the bluff the previous morning. Once again, gobbles echoed up and down the river bottom. Birds pitched down from their roosts. Gobblers strutted. Hens fed. Jakes ran around. An hour later, the field had almost emptied out, with every turkey traveling up the other cut!
But a trio of gobblers remained. They were traveling that direction, too, when I went for broke with some hard cutts, and kept at it. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the birds worked my way … and then one broke and came on in.
After all that work, my hands were shaking pretty good. But with the gobbler at that perfect 25-yard-or-so range, even I couldn’t miss the shot. I leaned back, exhaled into the cool morning air, and looked across to the roost trees from which my bird had come, their new-green cottonwood leaves dappling the sunlight and rattling softly in the spring breeze.