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Killing Your Own Food: North American Wild Turkey

Posted May 05 2010 8:27am

Meleagris Gallopavo Silvestris is an animal well known as a food source exploited by native americans. The weak and flightless albino CAFO animals we Americans eat by the millions on Thanksgiving day are a mutant version of this magnificent wild bird.

As a game species, the wild turkey is big enough to be exciting and offers enough meat to be worth the effort to hunt. But you don’t need a truck to bring it home (like whitetail deer) or a helicopter to retrieve it from a swamp (like a moose in Maine, for instance)

You can look at the map and see that the eastern turkey –silvestris - is available to hunt for most of you that live east of the Missisippi river. The other varieties are found in the western states and Mexico, but silvestris has been transplanted in the west as well, including to California. Wild turkey populations are booming all over, with such robust populations that you can get several tags (and thus kill more than one bird per season) in many states.

Blue silvestris   - Eastern Turkey

Orange Osceola      - Florida Turkey     

Green Intermedia  - also known as Rio Grande

Red Merriami      - Merriam’s

Tan Mexicana     -  also known as Gould’s

As a youngster, I went hunting a few times with my father for phasianus colchicus (see photo below), but not often enough to be successful at it. I can’t really say what kept the flame lit, but I still nurtured a desire to hunt as an adult. In my early 30’s I started in with a variety of shotgun sports, including, trap, skeet, and sporting clays. I had a brother-in-law that came back to Iowa to hunt every fall, and with his inspiration (thanks, Doug) soon I was hunting pheasants every chance I could on local farms in the Iowa City area. My most successful season I managed to bag 27 birds with no dog to point or retrieve. The secret to preparing pheasant is to gut the birds and age them in feathers at refrigerator temperature (35-45 degrees F) for 4 to 5 days. That is why you see the birds hanging in the three-season porch.

The ringnecked pheasant is an asian import that has thrived in the upper Midwest of the US since being introduced in the late 19th century as a gamebird. As writer Datus Proper has said, pheasants are wild birds that thrive in the interstices of agricultural civilization. They live in the weeds that grow between plots of the farmer’s corn that they eat. Shooting pheasants is wingshooting, where you use a shotgun to kill birds as they fly. With big rooster pheasants weighing up to 3 pounds, they are tough birds to kill. An ounce and quarter of hardened shot from a 12-bore shotgun is advisable.

The wild turkey is a bird that is related to gallinaceous birds like pheasants and chickens, but its size and the hunting techniques used really put it in the category of big game. Although wild turkeys can fly quite competently (I’ve seen them fly well over a quarter mile at a time) turkey hunting is not wing shooting. Male turkeys, called Toms or Gobblers, can weigh 25 lbs or more, which is ten times the mass of a pheasant. In order to kill them reliably with a shotgun, you must get a head or upper spinal cord shot. You need a dense pattern of shot centered on the head and neck. You need them to be standing still or walking slowly when you shoot.

There are a variety of strategies that are used. The main hunting season is in the spring, and as with ring necked pheasants, only males are legal game.

Sidebar: Bird polygamy means populations can be maintained with only a fraction of the males surviving to breed the off-limits hens. In the case of pheasants, you can kill up to 90% of the roosters each season and the hens will still all be bred and the population maintained.

Therefore, spring strategies center on exploiting the capability and desire of the Tom to mate with any and all available females.

Turkeys roost upright and sleep in trees at night (try that yourself some time without falling) If you have a place you can hunt where the turkeys fly down from their roosts at a known time every daybreak, and perhaps travel to a typical location to feed, you can set up a blind to hide from them and wait for them to come to you. When they are in calling range, you can use one of a variety of calls that mimic the sound of a hen. Many use plastic turkey decoys to add to the realism and help attract the Toms. If you sound even reasonably like a turkey, and the Tom can hear you, and he is not too “henned up” (has too many females he is already tending to abandon them to go after your ersatz auditory hen), and the Tom gets within 40 yards of your location and holds still enough for a shot without seeing or hearing you, you can shoot him.

Here is the call I use.

It’s a box call, operated by sliding the slightly sprung top against the edge of the box. I can’t say it works any better in general than a slate call, which is a disc and stick you stroke against it, or a diaphragm call, which takes some skill but has the advantage that both hands are free to shoot while you call. I use it because I killed my first turkey with it last season, and I killed another with it last week, so I suppose we can call it a rational superstition that this is my preferred call.

The shotgun I used this year is a Benelli M2 in 12-bore (pictured in the first photo). The black synthetic stock is impervious to rain and dirt and the parkerized finish on the barrel and receiver is flat. The lack of bright metal and reflective surfaces makes it easier to move the gun without alerting the birds keen eyesight. They make guns covered in camouflage print. You pay extra for such guns. In my opinion, they look ridiculous and probably add to your hunt effectiveness as much as camouflaged pickup trucks or bedspreads.

The load I use is a 3 inch shell with 1 3/4 oz of a tungsten/steel alloy called hevishot in size #6. It is actually denser than lead, which means for a given pellet size it retains more downrange energy. My test patterns give me confidence to shoot with this round out to 40-45 yards. The shot hardness also gives tighter patterns, which is also very helpful in this game. These hevishot shells ( the tan one on the left) cost about $3 US per round. This is not wingshooting, so the expense is meaningless once you have used $15-30 of them to test-pattern your shotgun at different ranges. I have never killed a bird outside 25 yards, though, so a more standard load of 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 oz of lead might have done fine.

I have hunted turkeys now a total of 4 spring seasons. The first season was in 2000, and I was busy so only hunted on one day I had available. I was on a friend’s land and I did not have the advantage of any knowledge or experience with turkeys at the time. I had read a few books (listed at the end of the article) I set up a pop-up blind in what I thought might be a likely spot, and within 15 minutes a hen walked 5 yards in front of the blind. When she was gone, I started calling with a slate call. I thought I sounded like a turkey, and sure enough, I heard a loud gobble from the woods to the north. I would cutt ( a short sound repeated 2 or 3 times) and the Tom would gobble loudly. It seemed like he was only maybe 50 yards away, but now I realize he was more like 125 yards. Gobblers are loud! We went back and forth like that about 20 twenty minutes or so, and he would no move any closer. Sometimes if a Tom hears a hen, he will strut (the sexual display to attract the female) and gobble, and expect the hen to come in to him. I had read as much in my books, so I crawled out of the blind and carefully crept into the woods. I feared I would be seen (thinking he was closer than he was) and only went in about 30 yards or so. I sat with my back to a tree and called a few times. Not hearing any more gobbles in response, I waited about 5 minutes more. Figuring I had been made, I left the woods.

My next hunt was in the spring of 2008. I now had new land to hunt on, and made the classic mistake of looking for my keys where the light was best. I set up a blind in a likely-looking spot, and over several hunts called in vain with no replies heard. The only turkeys I saw were driving to and from hunting.

For Spring 2009 I took my 2008 experience and actually learned from it. I noted before the season where turkeys roosted, and where I saw them when I was out driving, and I made the effort to get permission to hunt on several more properties where I had seen birds. I resolved to use a run-and gun technique, where you attempt to locate turkeys on the fly and if you get no response to calling, you move on to a different area. This is done with no blind and (at least by me) with no decoys. I looked like this:

Camouflage jacket, Filson shelter cloth hat, $5 face net from cabelas and “mechanix” automotive gloves. The gloves and face net are the critical parts. White skin is like a beacon to a turkey’s eyes. (They see color, by the way, so stick with greens and browns)

On opening day, I started by making the rounds of my several properties at about 10 am. The first place I saw birds was along a fence line at the local rod-and-gun club.  I approached the birds from the woods south of the fence line, but was too aggressive and bumped into a jake before I could set up. He startled the other birds and they all flew off, so I packed off to check my next spot, #2. On the road leading up to property #2 was a Tom standing in full strut in the middle of the road. This road happened to border property 3 on the north, so I kept driving at a slow pace towards the bird. When I got about 200 yards away he left the road and entered the woods to the south of this east/west road. I carefully marked his entry point and continued on another quarter mile or so down the road. I parked my wagon and quickly got out my shotgun and trotted back in the direction of the Tom. When I was only 100 yards from where he entered the woods, I cut into the woods about 15 yards perpendicular to the road. I sat with my back to a large cedar in a position like this, with my shotgun on my lap and my call in position:

 I called with two cutts and immediately got a loud gobble from his direction. After a minute, I called again and he responded. Two more times at 30 to 45 sec intervals, and each time he sounded closer. Suddenly I could see him through the trees. He had come out to use the road to get to his “hen” faster. Now that I could see him I stopped calling and just watched, with my gun at the ready like this:

He picked his way towards me in an irregular pattern, stopping to strut in an opening when he was 23 yards away. I fired once and he went down. From seeing him on the road to shooting him was about 10 minutes.

Now, turkeys have spurs (on their turkey “heels”) than can send you to the ER for sutures if you are not careful. Don’t grab him just yet. It’s best to keep a round chambered and stand by. Of course, if he gets up or starts flying, you will have to shoot him center-of-mass. In a few minutes, though a properly head-shot bird will stretch his wings in an agonal spasm and then lie still even if you poke him with the gun barrel. At this point, it is safe to pick him up by the legs and carry him out.

Here is my 2009 bird, weighing in at 21 ½ lbs:

My 2010 hunt was just over a week ago. So I guess that makes this yet another “excuse post”. If your once-yearly 5-day turkey season prevents blogging and makes you lose readers, well.. it is what it is.

Anyway, opening day 2010 I made the rounds at three of my spots using my run-and-gun approach. My third spot revealed two Toms and several hens and jakes in the center of an 80-acre field. Now, anyone who has hunted whitetail deer knows that this is a sucker’s bet. The more visible the prey to the predator, the more visible the predator to the prey. I tried to put the sneak on these birds by crawling on the far side of a tree line bordering the field but the whole flock spooked at my movement when I was still about 100 yards away. The birds were upwind, which is to say, I would have to be close on this very windy day for them to hear my box call. I felt I had to get close as I got no response from the Toms when calling from 150 yards.

The second day, I was actually busy with some other business-related task that escapes me now, so I did not get out until  about 3:00 pm. This time, I made the rounds and saw no birds at any of my spots. So I just set up in a wooded area about 200 yards south of where I always see turkeys roosted in the trees. I sat with my back to a large tree and started a calling sequence – just 2 or 3 cutts every minute or so. After maybe 3 minutes, I got a gobble that sounded maybe 100-150 yards off. We played call-and-response for a good 20 minutes like this, and I could sense a lateral change in direction, but he would not come closer. This was tough. This section of the woods was northern hardwood, with nice, crisp, noisy aspen and ash leaves carpeting the ground. It was very loud to take even a step, but I had no choice. So I advanced slowly toward the gobble by attempting to step on tufts of grass, soggy rotten logs, moss, etc. I took about 10 minutes to move 50 yards. Once I had done so, I carefully repositioned as in the picture above (shotgun on lap with call) and started a few gentle calls.


I waited about 2 minutes and called again.


I waited 5 minutes and called again.

Still nothing.

After 10 minutes of this, I heard nothing. I knew he could be moving without calling back, so I waited 5 more minutes. If he were coming, it seemed he could have easily closed the distance in just a few minutes.

I got up to leave, thinking I had probably scared him off with the ridiculously loud crunching leaves left over from November, and that I had tried to get to close. I stood, slowly and started backing out of my spot, because, well, you never know..

Just as soon as I was fully standing, I head one of those “no doubt about” sounds you hear when hunting. There is absolutely no doubt something is coming, but you have no idea if it is a man, a deer, a turkey, a black bear or the neighbor’s dog.

Swoosh, swoosh..

So I waited. And as I waited, I slowly crouched down into a kneeling shooting position. My visibility was terrible now with leaves literally sticking in my face, but I didn’t dare move again in case it was the Tom.

Swoosh, swoosh..

Suddenly I saw his blue and red head at about 40 yards, off to my far right at a 30 angle from where I could comfortably shoot. The swooshing noise was him dragging his tail feathers over the crunchy leaves. His head disappeared, but now I could hear him moving from my right towards my left. He was zig-zagging looking for the hen he had heard. The next time I saw him his head popped up, facing perpendicular to me at no more than 18 yards, as I paced it off later.

Here he is again, and that's him in the lead photo up above:

Last year, I boiled water and scalded the bird. My wife and I plucked all the feathers and we smoked it in our electric smoker at 225 F for about 6 hours. The bird was a little dry that way, even with the skin on. This year, I gutted and skinned the bird as I would have done a pheasant. I used a hand axe just like in the cartoons to expediently remove the head, feet and wings. Crude but effective. I washed the bird and then put it in the regrigerator in a plastic bag to let is age. A few days later, I rubbed some spices (a variety of peppers and salt mostly) on the carcass, and smoked it for 4 hours at 225 F. Despite having no skin on it, it came out moist, tender and delicious, with the reduced smoking time. I can't claim this method of preparation is the best for fat intake. but I don't view birds as much of a fat source. A turkey could be optimized to get all the fat by saving all the storage fat in the lower neck area and by boiling it and drinking all the stock if you were so inclined. I might try that next year. But this year, the bird came out looking like this. Not the biopsy slice where I cut into the breast to make sure it was fully cooked.

Here is the smoker I use. It a cookshack with a simple  thermostat and an electric heating element. You load a small chunk, say 3 x3 cm, of aromatic hardwood of your choice (maple, cherry, etc.) into the bottom of the unit. At 225, it smokes slowly and flavors the meat, turning into a chunk of porous charcoal in the process. No water, no propane or charcoal and no supervision required.

Using an hours-per-pound-of-meat metric, hunting the North American wild turkey may be more efficient than bowhunting for that other big-game animal, the whitetail deer.

Once you have some idea of what you are doing, anyway.

Other than for exotic table fare, why hunt?

Well, it’s a lot of fun, for one thing. I certainly hunted before I was ever “paleo” and most of the hunters I know in Wisconsin would not dream of venison or turkey without the accompaniment of bread, beer, soda pop and sugary sauces.

I can’t pretend that wingshooting for pheasants or grouse is Paleolithic behavior, as it dates from invention of appropriate arms in the late 17th century. Shooting a wild turkey in the head with 1 ½ oz of hardened refined lead shot propelled by modern smokeless propellant from a factory made shotgun with a petroleum-derived synthetic stock is not Paleolithic in terms of the technology used.

If you kill a whitetail deer or turkey with a stickbow and string, that is emulating late Paleolithic or early Neolithic activity.

So where is the evolutionary or ancestral or paleolithic part of hunting with relatively modern technology?

Well, first I would say that we should avoid the “man as cancer on the planet” fallacy and the assumption that technology and nature, including human nature, are somehow separate. Tools made by the tool-using animal to accomplish tasks like hunting for food are as natural as any other phenomenon that is real.

Using tools is what makes us human. Maybe this is just what I tell myself because I find the art in weapons like fine shotguns and rifles and bows and knives deeply compelling. The beauty in tools (cars, firearms, hi-fi systems, mechanical wristwatches, computers) is appreciated by many, but tools that can feed you seem to me to be profoundly beautiful in a way that some other artful tools are not.

So I think that using modern versions of hunting tools is perfectly natural and it is still hunting as long as there is enough effort and uncertainty and intimacy in the endeavor.

How do you know if you are using too much tool?  If you hunt, you will know. When you feel no fear or excitement doing it, you are probably not hunting any more.

But I don’t think the technology used is the crux of what we get from hunting. After all, you can roam the woods with an osage selfbow and flint tipped arrows made from phragmites reeds and if you don’t intend to kill anything, you are definitely not a hunter.

The value of hunting is primarily in being honest about where food comes from, and about how we got where we are, while enhancing both the quality of our diets and the quality of our being in the world.

The parts that brings you back to your predator heritage are not dependent on the tool you used to kill the animal at all. That matters to the “sport” or, a misnomer in my view – the “ethical” part of hunting - the part that asks: how challenging was it?

The parts that connect you with the rest of the universe are when the animal dies so that you can live. When you gut it, skin or pluck it, and finally when you eat it


Further reading:

Pheasants of the Mind  by Datus Proper (This is the best book on pheasant hunting and one of the best books on hunting period)

Pheasant Hunter's Harvest by Steve Grooms

Turkey Season - Outdoor Life  (This is the best turkey book)

Innovative Turkey Hunting by Jim Casada

The Wild Turkey - Biology and Management  by James Dickson  This is a good scholarly book on turkey biology.


A final caveat. I have an intelligent readership. Many intelligent people under-emphasize experiential learning in favor of book knowledge. You will learn far more about hunting (and about yourself) from getting out there and doing it than you will from any book.

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