Turkeys, much like any game animal, will leave behind signs as they carry out their daily routines. As hunters, these signs are important to us because they help to determine roosting areas, feeding areas, strut zones, and daily patterns…all key components in the grand scheme of tagging a bird. Visually scouting turkeys is sometimes difficult as they move about during the day throughout their home ranges and often spot a hunter and flee before you spot them. Finding signs of turkey activity can be paramount in locating areas where these witty birds routinely spend brief periods of time in specific locations.
Below is a list of common signs that turkey’s leave us as clues to what they are doing and where they are going. Study the signs and use them this spring to help you locate more birds.
Droppings – Turkey feces are easily identifiable and most hunters see them frequently when in the field. A gobbler’s feces are usually bigger than a hen’s feces and shaped like a fishhook. Hen poop is more circular in shape and a bit smaller than gobblers. Fresh feces is moist, green and splashed with white coloring. Older feces is can look gray/white and noticeably drier.
Feathers – A turkey has 5,000 to 6,000 feathers and they will lose these feathers when they fight, molt, fly, and groom themselves. In the field look for wing feathers, tail feathers and breast feathers. A tom’s breast feather will be iridescent and have square black tips. A hen’s breast feather will be brown and drab with a rounded tip.
Roost Trees – A roost tree is a tree that turkeys frequently use to spend the night to escape the danger of ground predators. Roost trees in Iowa are usually large sturdy trees, such as oaks and cottonwoods that provide a good distance of safety from the ground and a long line of sight that the turkey can use to see approaching danger. To locate a roost tree you should be looking for a number of signs on the ground around the tree such as, feces, feathers, and scratches. Turkeys will generally have three to four different roosting areas within their home territory.
Tracks – Turkey tracks are unmistakable, they start with a small ball shape imprint that is the metatarsal pad. Extending from this pad are three appendages that are the toes of a turkey. Turkey tracks are great indicators to figure out where turkeys are going to and coming from, not to mention the sex of the bird. A Tom turkey will have a larger track then a hen. The middle toe will most likely be longer than the other two toes. A Tom’s tracks are usually 3.5” or longer.
Scratches – A turkey will use its long claw like feet to rake the ground in search of food. Look for unearthed leaves, grass, and dirt and you will know that turkeys are using the area for feeding purposes. Turkey scratches usually have a “V” or “U” shaped appearance. Turkeys move in the opposite direction of the point of the scratch.
Drag Marks – Drag marks, as I call them, are a Tom turkeys primary wing marks left in the dirt as he is dragging his wings on the ground when in strut. If you see a turkey footprint in the dirt along with thin parallel lines off to the side then you have just found an area where a Tom had been strutting.
Dust Bowls – Dust bowls are shallow depressions in the soil that turkeys create to dust and dry their feathers off and rid them of mites. Turkeys will use dust bowls frequently throughout the day and are great places to set up a hunt.
Strut Zone – A strut zone is simply an area Toms go to strut in order to lure in hens. Drag marks, droppings, dust bowls, feces and feathers all located together usually indicate a strut zone. A Tom will likely have several strut zones that he will frequent daily as he makes his rounds trying to attract hens.
During the morning a lot of strut zones are located on eastern hillsides as they warm up the quickest. The exact opposite can be said for the afternoons, as a lot of Toms will find strut zones on western hillsides. Look for strut zones in open grassy areas just off of a wooded area, logging roads, near food sources, and field edges. A lot of times strut zones will be on higher ground in order for the tom to feel safest from any approaching danger and so that hens can see him easily.
The above turkey signs are all great indicators that turkeys have been using a piece of property. If you know what to look for in the field these signs will increase your chances of putting a tag on a bird this year. If you know where the turkeys are spending a greater portion of their time, then you have a leg up on them when preparing to set up in conjunction with their daily patterns.