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  • by Steve Sorensen | The Everyday Hunter®

Tips on Turkey Hunting — #18: ARE WILD TURKEYS SMART?

"Wise old gobbler." The words are almost a cliché. Outdoor writers have long attributed great intelligence to the big bird resulting in some hunters thinking a mature gobbler is on par with Einstein. But he's not a genius. He's just a prey animal.

Turkeys tend to make us feel foolish. They confound our best strategies and make us shake our heads in frustration. They almost always do what we don't expect—a reason we attribute brilliance to a bird with a brain no bigger than a walnut.

Your brain is much bigger, and though you may not be smarter than a fifth-grader, you are smarter than the oldest gobbler in the woods. The problem is that the gobbler is acutely conditioned to survive there. He instinctively avoids the various ways he could become a turkey dinner—that's his main goal in life.

That's why he doesn't hang around to investigate when he sees something he doesn't understand. He just gets gone. If he's not comfortable, he's not neighborly. He'll scram. Vamoose. On the other hand, when he sees something he expects, he can be duped by a decoy, or a tailfan of a turkey, or even a piece of plywood painted to look like a turkey. Make what he hears and what he sees seem normal and natural, and he can be easily fooled.

A turkey is a prey animal tuned to survival. Picture a chipmunk darting around you while you're calling a gobbler. That little rascal is totally unpredictable. He'll run, stop, climb, jump—you never know what he'll do next. It's all built-in defensive behavior, meant to throw every hawk, owl, fox, and whatever else is after him, off pursuit.

While a turkey isn't so herky-jerky, he is just as high-strung. When he's with other turkeys he feels safe—which is why "birds of a feather flock together." When he's alone, or when he's moving through the woods, he's a bundle of nerves. If he doesn't know what's ahead, or what might be trying to sneak up on him or waiting in ambush for him, he's extremely cautious. That's probably why gobblers approach slowly—they're nervous about what they can't see.

Turkeys are not geniuses, but they can sure make us feel like fools!

I’ll be posting more “Tips on Turkey Hunting” as often as I can until the end of May. I don’t claim to be the best turkey hunter around, but I’ll share what I know. It might be helpful to those who pursue America’s greatest game bird. While you're at it, check out my gobbler-killin' Northern Scratchbox turkey call at It's full of deadly sounds.

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