Demystifying the Puffed-Up Turkey: A Guide to Understanding Turkey Body Language

Any addicted turkey hunter will probably tell you that calling in a sunlit, brush-bearded strutting tom and gobbling, spitting, and drumming through the spring woods is the exhilarating rush that fuels their obsession. It’s a feature of the turkey-hunting experience that can send even reasonably sane hunters into the woods for weeks at a time, costing them time with their families, jobs, and sleep.

Have you ever wondered about the “mechanics” of how a turkey struts? What is the process that turns a turkey that resembles a buzzard into an amazing feathered kaleidoscope of color that can haunt a hunter’s dreams? Additionally, when a turkey is very close, there are subtle sounds that are more felt than heard, like “chhhkkkk” and “whoouump.” Let’s examine strutting, spitting, and drumming in more detail using images, the author’s observations, and the knowledge of wild turkey specialists.

After decades of hunting across the nation, NWTF’s “On the Hunt” editor for Turkey Country magazine, Brian Lovett, was inspired by the amazing physical transformation known as the turkey strut. “Honestly, I don’t think turkey hunting would be quite as much fun if gobblers didn’t strut. It’s just such a great visual spectacle. My heart rate still goes up whenever I see a fan or a strutter, even if they are 200 yards away. It’s just one of those behaviors that makes turkeys so fascinating,” says Lovett. A spring gobbler in full strut is obvious and most gamekeepers and hunters don’t need an explanation. However, there are some interesting details. The best way to characterize the strut is as a collection of movements and components that elevate the bird from ordinary to magnificent. Nature provides bachelors with an instant makeover to entice partners, scare off competitors, and serve as the source of the phrase “strut your stuff!”

During full strut the wings are lowered to allow the primary wing feathers to touch the ground. This results in drag marks, which map the gobbler’s movements during the display and provide hunters with cues to locate strut zones. The author’s hus-band, Ron Jolly, has hunted turkeys more than 50 years and hears turkeys better than most. Jolly points out that when hunting in rocky or dry terrain, there is a sound that hunters should become familiar with: wings dragging. It’s a close range sound than can be louder than drumming in certain situations. In a full strut the tail raises to a vertical position and feathers open to form a fan. Tails average 18 feathers but can have more or less. The gobbler may swivel the fan in various directions to show it off more effectively. When gobbling or breaking strut, for example, the open fan can also be held in a lower position to scan the area for hens, competitors, or danger. The body feathers on the back and breast raise simultaneously making the gobbler appear larger. How do they do that? Think of it as controlled goosebumps, only turkeybumps. Small muscles located at the base of each feather enable the bird to move its feathers. Those muscles are connected to other very small muscles within the skin. When strutting, the turkey contracts the muscles that control feather position, causing the body feathers to stand erect. The same holds true for the muscles in the wings and a cluster of muscles at the base of the tail. The head, neck, snood and caruncles are naked skin. The head’s crown, or skull cap, is typically pure white when the turkey is strutting. It’s often the first thing a hunter notices as a strutter approaches. Depending on the bird’s mood, the color of its face, neck, and caruncles can vary from blue to bright red to flesh tone or white. Wild turkey gobblers can change the color of their skin by contracting and relaxing tiny blood vessels in their head and neck. When strutting, a gobbler will droop its head and neck, tucking it into its upright back feathers. The fleshy worm-like snood elongates when the bird is aroused, drooping several inches from the beak’s base. The lengthening and contraction of the snood is also controlled by muscles and blood vessels.

Ah the turkey a majestic bird often associated with Thanksgiving feasts and, for some, thrilling hunting expeditions. But beyond their culinary and sporting significance, turkeys possess a fascinating language of body cues that can be intriguing to decipher. One such behavior that often sparks curiosity is the “puffing up” phenomenon. So, what exactly does it mean when a turkey puffs up, and what can we glean from this display?

Unveiling the Reasons Behind the Puff:

Our feathered friends don’t engage in this dramatic display without a purpose. In fact, there are three primary reasons why a turkey might puff up its feathers:

1. Strutting for Love:

During the breeding season, male turkeys engage in an elaborate courtship ritual known as “strutting.” This involves puffing up their feathers, fanning their tails, and strutting around while emitting gobbles and other vocalizations. This impressive display serves to attract potential mates and showcase their dominance over other males.

2. Establishing Dominance:

Beyond the realm of romance, turkeys also use puffing up as a means of asserting their dominance within the flock. When two males encounter each other, they may engage in a “strut-off,” puffing up their feathers and displaying their impressive plumage in an attempt to intimidate their rival and establish their superior status.

3. Defense Mechanism:

Interestingly, puffing up can also serve as a defense mechanism for turkeys. When faced with a perceived threat, be it a predator or a human intruder, turkeys may inflate their feathers to appear larger and more intimidating, hoping to deter the potential danger.

Understanding the Characteristics of the Strut:

The turkey’s strut is a visually captivating display, characterized by the following key features:

  • Lowered Primary Feathers: The turkey lowers its primary feathers until they touch the ground, creating a wider base for its impressive display.
  • Tail Fan Formation: The tail feathers are fanned out, forming a magnificent display that showcases the vibrant colors and patterns of the turkey’s plumage.
  • Upright Feathers: The feathers on the back and chest are positioned in an upright position, further enhancing the turkey’s imposing appearance.
  • S-Shaped Neck and Head: The turkey lowers its head and neck into an “S” shape, adding a touch of elegance to the overall display.

Timing and Location of the Strut:

Turkeys don’t strut continuously throughout the day. This behavior is primarily observed during the breeding season, when males are vying for the attention of females, and during encounters with other males, where dominance needs to be established. The duration of the strut can vary from a few seconds to several hours, depending on the context and intensity of the situation.

As for the location, turkeys are not particularly picky when it comes to strutting. They may perform this display in open fields, wooded areas, or even along roadsides. However, they tend to favor areas that offer good visibility, allowing them to showcase their impressive plumage and vocalizations effectively.

The next time you encounter a turkey, take a moment to observe its body language. If you see it puffing up its feathers, you can now interpret this behavior as a sign of courtship, dominance, or defense. By understanding the reasons behind this fascinating display, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the complex communication strategies employed by these remarkable birds.

Where Do Turkeys Strut?

If there’s a rule about where gobblers strut, it’s there are no hard and fast rules where gobblers strut. Lovett says, “I’ve seen gobblers strut in almost every type of terrain and habitat. Certainly, they love to fan out and display in fields, pastures, food plots, logging roads, timbered flats and other relatively open areas. That seems to make biological sense, as strutters in these areas can see other turkeys and potential predators, and other turkeys can easily see them. Also, they really seem to favor strutting on south- and east-facing slopes or benches in the morning, where they can soak up warmth and rays from the rising sun. I’ve also seen them strut in fairly tight timber or even brushy areas that might impede their wings and feathers — places where conventional wisdom tells us they would never strut. Usually, they’re with hens when they strut in these areas, but not always.”strutting gobblers Turkeys strut anywhere the notion strikes, although two attributes are common to many sites; good sunlight in enough open area for gobblers to be seen, spot danger and to observe hens approaching, and good acoustics so the gobbles can be heard from a long distance. Locations that consistently show evidence of tracks, scratching and wing drag marks in dirt, sand or snow indicate a “strut zone, a place where turkeys meet and gobblers strut. “I think a gobbler will return regularly to a site where he’s met hens previously, but I don’t believe they establish tight strutting zones in the technical sense. Basically, I think a gobbler remembers those areas in his home range where he regularly encounters hens and goes to them when the fancy strikes. That might be once a week or several times per day. Turkeys are just so random in their movements, and few of them get locked into hard-and-fast routines. It’s sort of like a hen that goes to a green food plot three straight days after fly-down but then goes the opposite way on Day 4. Why? Who knows? They’re turkeys. To me, gobblers are much the same with so-called strutting zones. However, if you’ve seen a strutter frequent an area more than once, that is a great potential setup spot. He’s obviously comfortable in the area and has no hang-ups about visiting it,” says Lovett.spit and drum turkey calling When strutting, especially in the presence of hens, toms exhibit the spit & drum behavior, which adds subtle sounds and drama to the bird’s courtship display. It usually starts with a couple of quick steps or a leg lift as the bird’s beak opens slightly, emitting a brief but forceful “pfft” or “tick” sound. The body feathers audibly shudder (remember the tiny muscles attached to feathers and skin), as the bird emits a low-pitched “duum”, or drum that begins low and increases in tone and volume at the end. Turkeys almost always spit and drum when they strut but also do it when not strutting. Unlike a gobble that can carry up to a mile, the ruffling feathers and spit and drum sounds can be difficult for humans to hear beyond a hundred yards, even in the best conditions. Many hunters fail to hear or recognize these three sounds even when a bird is close. A quick tour of YouTube videos on the subject is helpful.turkey drumming How do turkeys spit and drum? There’s plenty of anecdotal observation but not much science based research to back it up. The author and husband have photographed and videoed the behavior extensively. One thing is certain, the gobbler’s beak opens and closes quickly when the spit sound is made. Is the bird inhaling or exhaling? Some claim to have witnessed phlegm or “spit” projected. Others speculate the bird is inhaling air, then using the air to produce the vibrating drumming sound. Lovett has his own theories and the author agrees. “I’ve always thought spitting and drumming were just guttural sounds produced within the body via air movement. Years ago in Nebraska, an outfitter had a “pet” turkey that would walk right up to you. It strutted almost constantly, and you could put your hand on it and feel it spitting and drumming. The spit portion was very forceful — almost like someone stifling a powerful sneeze. And the bird’s entire body vibrated during the drum portion. Pretty neat. I’ve always assumed a spit-drum was produced by one breath. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I wonder if pauses between spit-drums occur when the bird inhales. Another interesting note: It’s amazing to me how I don’t hear some turkeys drum until they’re almost on top of me. This is especially true when it’s windy, raining or otherwise noisy in the woods. Other days, I can clearly hear one drumming 100-plus yards away. I wonder if it’s the actual volume of the spit-drum or an environmental factor. Or maybe it’s just my gunshot-damaged ears!” says Lovett. If you hear a gobbler spit and drum, he’s close. Experienced hunters like Jolly focus on drumming as a bird approaches, especially if it has stopped gobbling. “If I can hear drumming when a bird goes silent, it allows me to track the turkey’s whereabouts and lets me know to be still, have my gun up, cheek down and be ready for the shot. If the gobbler doesn’t appear immediately, drumming tells me to be patient and assures me he’s still in the area. The game is still on!” says Jolly.

Listen carefully for spitting and drumming when birds are on the morning roost. The sound carries farther in an open canopy and on high ground. A turkey may not gobble if you hunt in an area with a lot of pressure, but it may drum to summon its hens. Turkeys frequently only drum in areas where there are lots of bobcats and coyotes because the sound doesn’t travel as far. When turkeys aren’t gobbling, listen for hens and/or jakes making intermittent short series of excited yelps. They may be responding to a silent gobbler’s spit and drum. Hunters who work to become experts at listening, staying motionless, and remaining silent have a better chance of tagging a tom because they can detect and identify the faint noises made by a gobbler’s spit and drum.

Wild turkey strutting is well defined but scientific research on spitting and drumming is still incomplete. It is undeniably captivating to witness a sunlit spring gobbler strutting, spitting, and drumming – one of the most intricate and captivating courtship displays in all of nature. Enjoy it for what it is, a gift from our Creator that all turkey hunters can appreciate.

Why and When Do Turkeys Strut?

Lovett says, “Why and when do gobblers strut? Honestly, I think whenever they feel the urge. Here in Wisconsin, I’ve seen strutters every month of the year. They obviously start to strut in earnest in late winter and early spring when more daylight becomes available. Additionally, as their testosterone levels rise, they become more macho and strut around, either to attract hens or in response to possible rivals. Although gobblers will also strut in late spring or summer, especially for hens that appear to have lost their nests or broods, I believe this peaks during the pre-breeding and breeding phases.

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In general, strutting is associated with spring breeding season when gobblers defend their status and show off their plumage and colors to attract hens.turkey order The display has additional implications in other circumstances such as a show of dominance among males outside of breeding season and when winter flocks reconnect and establish the pecking order.wild turkey hens Hens may strut to convey dominance or occasionally in response to threats from predators to the brood.

What does it mean when a turkey puffs up?


Do female turkeys puff up?

Well-known member. Pigig, females don’t fan their tails like the goblers do, but as a threat gesture they will puff up and fan the tail somewhat. If you come across a hen with chicks the hen will puff up, fan the tail some, and charge toward you in an attempt to drive you away from her young.

How can you tell if a turkey is happy?

Looking at a gobbler’s head is about the best way to tell how he’s feeling. A relaxed tom usually maintains white, light blue and red shades while one that is worked up will have a head full of blood that will be dark red. Pay special attention when he is in strut and you’ll notice how white his head is.

Why do turkeys make a puffing sound?

They use it to attract females and in response to other males—sometimes one male’s call can lead to a group of others joining in.

What does it mean when a turkey struts?

STRUT: Springtime courtship display of a gobbler in which it fans its tail feathers, drops its wings, flares its back and breast feathers, changes its head and caruncle from blue to red or flesh tone, brings its head and neck down into an “s” shape, and moves about to attract hens.

Why do turkeys puff up?

Be it pet or wild, the puffing up which is also known as strut behavior has commonly been witnessed among turkeys. And predominately this behavior is manifested by a male turkey. Male turkeys puff up their feathers while pulling their wings and fan the tails exhibiting colorful long features to entice female turkeys for mating.

Why do male turkeys puff up their feathers?

Male turkeys puff up their feathers while pulling their wings and fan the tails exhibiting colorful long features to entice female turkeys for mating. Male turkeys display this puffing up or mating dance mostly during the period of breeding so that the female turkeys turn their head over heels towards the male turkeys for mating.

How do you know if a Turkey is puffing up?

The first sign that can help you identify puff up in turkeys is that noticing the turkeys drop their wings in the first place to touch ground. Another sign of recognizing puffing up in turkeys is that catching a glimpse of holding the feathers of their tail in a vertical position.

Why is my Ground turkey package Puffy?

Frozen turkeys are usually packed in a vacuum bag. This type of packaging keeps the air from escaping during freezing. As a result, the turkey becomes bloated and puffy. To prevent this, place the turkey in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer. Is it normal for ground turkey package puffed up? Raw eggs can last about 3 weeks if stored properly.

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