, Gloucester, MA

April 19, 2013

Outdoors: Scouting for Mr. Tom on Cape Ann

Dave Sartwell

---- — The restoration of turkeys in Massachusetts represents one of the most successful wildlife re-introductions in our history. Although the turkey was a staple in the diet of the early colonialists, the last turkey was killed on Mt. Tom in western Massachusetts in 1851. From 1914 through 1960 there were several unsuccessful attempts to re-introduce them using pen raised birds. Unfortunately these turkeys never produced a flock that could sustain itself.

However, other states were very successful in their efforts of re-introducing turkey flocks by capturing and moving wild birds. Between 1952 and 1974, the estimated nationwide turkey population grew from about 320,000 to 1,300,000, and the number of states permitting some form of open hunting season climbed from 15 to 39. Recognizing the need for redirecting its restoration project, MassWildlife made contact with other eastern states, and in 1972 was granted permission by New York to live-trap wild birds for transfer to Massachusetts.

Between 1972 and 1973, 37 birds were captured in New York and released in southern Berkshire County. The new flock grew slowly at first, but expanded rapidly after about 1976 with the estimated fall 1978 population totaling about 1,000 birds. Supplemented by an overflow from adjacent states, turkeys ranged throughout most parts of Massachusetts west of the Connecticut River. In-state transplants of the birds, conducted from 1979 to 1996, expanded the range of the bird into the central, northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. Some estimates place the number of birds now in the 17-18,000 range!

There are many flocks of turkeys here on the North Shore. Because of housing patterns and the hunting restrictions of the different towns, it is a bit of a chore to find open spots to hunt. That being said, if you are diligent in your efforts, it is surprising how many places there are in this area that hold good flocks. Between now and the opening of the season, try to find as many flocks as you can.

Take a topo map and circle the areas where you find them. Once found, try to figure out why they are there and what they are doing. Are they just passing through? Is this where they are feeding? Is this where they roost at night? To determine that, come back to the same spots every three or four days to see if they are hanging here or not.

Turkeys, like most wild animals, are creatures of habit. When they find something that works they tend to stick with it. Remember that turkeys roost at night. They do this to get away from big predators like coyotes and foxes. They will pick a roosting site on a ridge that has clear views of the surrounding area, is close to food and water, and has enough big limbs to host the flock.

Early in the morning these big birds fly down from their roost. Using the word “fly” is a stretch. If you ever watch them drop down you will see they are not the best of flyers. They tend to look and sound like a small car thumping to the ground. You wonder how they don’t hurt themselves from the fall!

Once on the ground they gather gizzard gravel that will help them digest their food. They often then move to water and then stroll about for a morning snack. There is no mistaking a turkey feeding spot. They have very sharp and long claws and use them to rake the forest floor for nuts, bugs and whatever else is there for them to eat. The flock spreads out a bit and just move quietly through the woods, communicating with soft plucks and purrs.

After their morning feed they tend to find a spot with soft and sandy soil. There they dust up and rest. Although they sometimes will fly up, most of the time they stay on the ground. In the late afternoon they look about for more food and as evening approaches they go to roost. Again, their attempts at roosting are most awkward. Their wings are best suited for short glides not for flying. They make the most unbelievable racket as they pound their wings in the air to get enough lift to get up to a limb. Once landing, they teeter back and forth to get their balance. Often snuggling in next to the trunk for support and to reduce their silhouette.

During the spring mating season that can last from April to June in this area, they alter their routines a bit. The big male toms control and service their flocks. During the breeding seasons they will set up in an area and become very territorial. This need to breed is very strong and is the very weakness you as a hunter can use to find them. Early in the breeding season the dominant tom will stay put and you have to find that spot. Later in the season, after the majority of hens are bred, the tom can be lured away a distance to seek out a lonely hen.

It is important in the preseason to find as many flocks as you can. In this area the biggest problem in turkey hunting is other hunters. The land areas we hunt are so small and tight that hunter interference is common. However, if you are willing to walk a bit there are a lot of ridges and feeding areas around the reservoirs, in Dogtown, and other spots that hold some fairly large flocks.

In the early season you want to set up in a spot between where the birds roost and where they want to feed or set up mate. To do that you really need to observe the routine of the flock. Because so much of their prime movement time is at daybreak, you can usually really figure out the flock between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. before you head off to work. Using an owl or crow call, set up on some ridges and call every few minutes. The big toms will often gobble back at you, betraying their location. This is the best way to find their roosting area. Once that is found, close observation will help reveal their morning pattern.

Remember that most birds are shot between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. This is when they are the most active. This is when you can get the big toms to move to a call. With that being said, almost all hunters use their call too much. For example, in preseason scouting, if you hear a turkey gobble early in the morning, don’t call back. Remember that you are just trying to locate the flock. If they call out, mark the spot on your map and move on to try to locate another flock. Do, however, come back to the spot a few days later at dawn and listen. Call once or twice if you hear nothing to see if the flock is still there. If you get an answer, I repeat, do not call again.

Once you locate a flock, do not try to get too close to them. Do try to figure out where they move to and from. Just be quiet and listen as turkeys are more vocal than you might imagine. draw a line on your topo that marks their movement so you can figure out where the best spot might be for you to set up on opening morning.

To be successful on opening day you need to get your butt out of bed before dawn for the next few weeks and do your homework. Just like back in high school, you increase your chances of success by studying an hour a day. If you take your time, get back in to the woods, and walk slowly and quietly you may be rewarded with one of the great sounds of spring...a big tom gobbling.