Biologists have confirmed that wild turkeys have at least 29 different calls or vocalizations, ranking them among the most vocal of birds. And perhaps the most appealing aspect of turkey hunting is engaging in a conversation with a cooperative tom as it thunders toward your setup. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “Turkey hunting is a participatory sport.”
In any given spring season, hunters will only use or hear a handful of turkey calls and should be able to recognize them. The problem, however, is that springtime conversations often become one-sided as hunters hammer away without realizing the meaning of the calls they’re using. To that end, here’s a breakdown of the most common turkey sounds, along with what they mean and when to use them.
The two-note yelp might be the most basic turkey sound. Yelps can mean about anything depending on a variety of factors such as number, cadence, volume, and more. To keep it simple, just remember they’re primarily used by hens as locator or brood-assembly calls, and they’re also used as a vocal indicator that a female is ready to breed.
Pick up any turkey call in the store, flip it over, and you’ll likely see each manufacturer’s interpretation of how to make the two notes of a yelp often spelled out as “kee-yop” or “chee-op.”. The two-note call, which is always a higher note breaking to a lower note, is easier for beginners to replicate on a friction call, such as a box or slate call. It’s a hard call to replicate on a mouth call, or diaphragm, without plenty of practice.
Many hunters make the mistake of yelping just to yelp, meaning they might sound exactly like a hen calling to a gobbler, but they’re not acting like a lovesick, lonely hen pleading for her soulmate to strut on over. Calling is as much about emotion as it is about realism, and in the woods it’s better to call with purpose and passion instead of just making noise.
Both hens and gobblers yelp, but a gobbler’s yelp is deeper, coarser, and slower paced. Hunters rarely use gobbler yelps in the spring, but in the fall they’re used to play on the curious and territorial nature of other toms and boss hens.
The yelping you hear early in the morning from turkeys still on the roost is called a tree yelp. The first yelps are brief, soft, and muffled because a turkey makes them with its beak nearly closed. Turkeys use tree yelps to communicate with other birds in a flock, and as the flock awakens, they become louder and louder until they evolve into full-fledged yelping as birds prepare to fly down.
Tree yelps are so soft that hunters rarely hear them unless it’s dead calm or they’re set up right beneath a turkey’s bedroom, in which case they‘ll use the call as a means of introducing themselves to roosted birds in hopes a gobbler answers.
Clucks and Putts
The cluck is a short, one-note call often used by turkeys to get the attention and/or locate another turkey. It’s the equivalent of humans calling “Marco,” with the hope that a friend calls back, “Polo.”
In addition to yelping, a cluck is one of the most common calls heard and used by hunters in the woods. But at the same time it can easily be confused with a “putt,” which is a single, staccato note that turkeys use as an alarm. Turkeys usually putt when they see or sense danger, not to simply warn other turkeys, but also to warn a predator it’s been spotted and shouldn’t waste its time.
An alarm putt and plain cluck both sound the same when rendered at roughly the same intensity. Ironically, when using a diaphragm, some hunters even mouth “putt” or “pick” as they blow across the reeds to make both calls, confusing the two even more. As a general rule of thumb, however, think of clucks as softer, more even sounds of contentment, whereas putts are often louder, sharper, and emitted closer together.
If a bird is within sight, hunters should take body language into consideration. For example, the single notes a hen makes while picking at bugs as she lazily wades through a pasture are quite often clucks. The single notes from a bird standing at attention, or as it scurries away, are likely alarm putts.
Cutting is an intense series of loud, erratic clucks often used by hens that are agitated or seeking companionship. The sheer volume of cutting makes it easy for a bird to reveal its location, and the excited nature of the call is often used to reel in a tom that’s fired up. This is a call that ultimately means, “Get your butt over here,” which is contrary to how the spring ritual of turkey mating works, where the tom does the talking with gobbles and the hens do the walking.
Cutting is not a subtle call, and it shouldn’t be used out of context. For example, if a longbeard is responding to soft, subtle yelps and making his way toward your setup, there’s no need to blow his doors off with a series of excited cuts.
If a tom is roiled and his gobbles are interrupting your calls, however, then cutting can add even more excitement to the fray. Experienced callers often lead into cutting using a series of clucks or yelps, and this combination adds flow and realism to the conversation.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is purring, which is a soft, rolling call used by feeding turkeys. Some say it’s a call of contentment, but most biologists and longtime hunters believe purring is a call of spatial relations. In other words, as a turkey feeds, it purrs to let other birds in the flock know that, “Hey, this is my space.”
Additionally, feeding turkeys often combine a soft cluck with light purring for spacing and contact, while a putt-purr is a signal of mild alarm. Both toms and hens will also purr aggressively when agitated or fighting for dominance in the pecking order, and this is where the purr graduates to more of a fighting rattle.
The gobble is the only true mating call of the turkey, and it’s the main vocalization of toms in spring.
When gobbling is at its peak, the first gobble usually rings out about 30 minutes before sunrise, often in response to the first call of a crow or other loud sound. Gobbling increases with the amount of gray light, and just a bit before sunrise is typically the height of gobbling activity.
Male turkeys gobble to attract hens and assert their place in the pecking order, and while a gobble is meant to excite and attract receptive hens, it has nearly an equal effect on hunters. Hearing a gobbler sound off lets a hunter know he or she is in the game and gives them hope. In fact, the effect of a gobble is so powerful that if turkeys didn’t gobble, not as many of us would bother to even hunt them.
Feature image via Captured Creative.