The temperatures had been in the 40's and 50's for the last week, and the turkeys had been gobbling every morning. But, during the night a cold front had come through, bringing with it cloudy weather and wet snow. I'd gotten up early, left the hotel and drove to the farm where I guided turkey hunts. Once I got to the farm I drove to the bluff where I'd put a group of toms to bed the night before. I got out of the Suburban, placed my Haydel's turkey diaphragm in my mouth and blew a soft tree yelp; no answer. I tried again, louder; still no answer. Then I blew a loud lost yelp, and waited in silence. All I could hear was the sound of a flock of wood ducks as they flew by overhead; wheet, wheet, wheet. For the next two hours I drove up and down the bluffs, trying to get a bird to answer my calls. I tried a flydown cackle, a peacock call, even a coyote howl, but nothing worked. It looked like I would go home empty handed, and I did. It wasn't until ten years later that I understood why I couldn't get a tom to answer my calls.
I began researching turkeys in 1998, to try to find out how gobbling, breeding and daily activity are affected by the weather. During my spring and fall research I would leave the house 1 1/2 hours before daylight, drive a half mile to where I research and hunt turkeys in southern Minnesota, and write down everything that happened until I could no longer see or hear the birds. I was there long before the first gobble, and I was able to watch the birds fly down, feed, call, strut, fight and breed. I usually spent three to four hours watching and listening, but there were times when I stayed until 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon. Then I'd return a couple of hours before sunset, watch the birds as they fed in the evening, and watch and listen to them fly up to roost for the night.
During the study I kept track of the time of sunrise and sunset, the sky conditions, the temperature, wind speed and direction, when gobbling began and ended in relation to sunrise, how many gobbles occurred every five minutes, which bird or group of birds the gobble came from, and where the birds were. Then I looked for correlation's between the gobbling, breeding and daily activity of the birds, and with the different weather factors. The results of my research have taught me a lot about turkey behavior.
One of the first things I noticed during the study was that the birds began gobbling and flew down later than normal when there were cloudy skies. Turkeys rely heavily on their sight to alert them of danger, and because they are daytime animals, they wake up when the sky begins to get light, and they wait to fly down until they can see well enough to detect danger. On cloudy days the toms would begin gobbling about 20 minutes later than they did on days when the sky was clear. Both the toms and hens flew down about 20 minutes later than normal on cloudy days. The dominant toms usually flew down and arrived at the strut later than the hens.
During the study most gobbling occurred when morning temperatures/wind-chills were between the upper 30's and lower 60's. Gobbling was severely reduced when the temperature/windchill dropped below 34 degrees, although this may have been because most of the cold days were, cloudy, windy, and rainy or snowy. Because turkeys inhabit a wide variety of habitats they are accustomed to different temperatures and wind-chills. Lovett Williams Jr. told me that turkeys in Florida gobble when morning temperatures are at 32 degrees. I shot my first Merriam's turkey in Nebraska shortly after it gobbled at 10:30 in the morning, it was 96 degrees.
On cold days the birds not only called less, they also began calling later than normal, usually after it had warmed in the mid-morning hours. They also flew down later than normal. Once they were on the ground the turkeys often sought areas that were open to the sun, usually out of the wind, where they were warmer because of solar radiation. During extremely cold weather they sought food sources out of the wind, and fed for several hours before they returned to the woods. I often saw them feeding on top of an open corn crib, at a silage pile not far from a cattle barn, and in a field where the farmer spread cattle manure every few days.
A research paper sent to me by Dr. James Earl Kennemer stated that when there had been precipitation during the last 12 hours, gobbling activity was reduced. As a result of my research I'll go a step farther than that. When it had rained within the last 12 hours gobbling activity was almost non-existent. If the birds did gobble it was later in the day than normal, usually after the skies cleared and the temperature warmed, and then there was less gobbling than normal. When it had rained during the night, but wasn't raining in the morning, I often saw the birds sitting in the open, especially if the sun was out, with their wings outspread, trying to dry out.
If it was still raining in the morning the birds often stayed in wooded areas later than normal, and chose areas with little ground cover to feed and rest in. I watched them walk through the woods on several occasions, and when the vegetation was wet they preferred to stay on game rails, old roads, and in areas with low vegetation. They didn't seem to want to get any wetter than they already were. When they did come out into the open to feed they used areas with low vegetation; new growth meadows, picked agricultural fields and pastures. But, not all birds are alike. One day when I had the state wildlife habitat manager with me we saw a hen standing in the middle of a county road in a pouring rain.
I also found that the birds were late on their daily travels when it had rained in the last twelve hours. If the skies were still cloudy in the morning the birds flew down later than normal, and arrived at traditional feeding/strutting areas later than normal, later than they did when the skies were cloudy but when it had not rained. It took me a while to understand why the bird were so much later on rainy days. I didn't understand why the birds were so late on rainy days until I watched them feeding one afternoon in a soybean field about a half mile from a group of white oaks where they often roosted. They birds usually fed in the field on the east side of the woods, moved around to the south side of the woods, and then flew into the trees about 50 yards from the field edge. The next morning they would fly down from the trees and land in the bean field, about fifty yards from the edge of the woods.
On this particular evening the turkeys had been feeding for about a half hour when it began to rain. The birds moved into the woods on the east side, and as it continued to rain they flew into a group of elms, where they roosted for the night. Because it was raining in the afternoon, before the birds roosted, they had stopped feeding earlier than normal, flew up into trees they didn't normally use, and roosted earlier than normal. Because they were farther away from their traditional feeding/strutting area the next morning, they couldn't fly down into the field. They had to walk farther than normal to get to the field, and they arrived at the feeding/strutting area later than normal the next morning. There were several times during the study when it rained in the afternoon, before the birds flew up to roost in a traditional roosting area. This usually resulted in the birds arriving late at open feeding/strutting areas the next morning, and they didn't follow their normal route.
My studies show that less gobbling occurs on windy days. When the wind is blowing it's hard for the toms to hear other birds calling; consequently they gobble less in response to each other. When it was not windy the birds often roosted on the upper two thirds of east or south facing slopes. I suspect this was because the prevailing winds were easterly, and because the birds might gain the benefit of late evening and early morning sunlight. When there were strong winds, or when it was both cold and windy, the birds roosted on the downwind sides of slopes or wooded areas, in heavy cover if the could. In areas where there are conifers, turkeys often roost in them during cold weather. On windy days, especially when it was cold or rainy, the birds usually fed in areas out of the wind; low-lying areas, wooded areas, and the down wind side of hills or woods. When they did feed in areas open to the wind they ate quickly and then moved into protected areas earlier than normal.
According to noted waterfowl biologist Dr. Jim Cooper, birds have numerous air sacs in their bodies that allows them to detect slight changes in barometric pressure, and warns them of approaching storms. Some hunters believe birds, including turkeys, feed heavily up to two days before a storm because they know it is coming. This would allow them to wait out a storm and resume feeding after it passes.
My Brother: WMB