Do Turkeys Learn?

The old tom gobbled at the hunter’s every yelp, but instead of sauntering into shotgun range, he stayed just out of sight and eventually drifted away. “Darn,” the hunter thought. “That old boy was toying with me just like he did the other day. That’s one smart turkey!”

Maybe so, and maybe no. Spring after spring, hunters encounter frustrating gobblers; birds that seem ripe for calling but don’t cooperate. Some of them rattle a few times on the roost, fly down and clam up for the rest of the day, leaving hunters to wonder if they did something wrong. It’s even worse when a tom continues to gobble at your pleading yelps but then hangs up and refuses to take another step.

Because they’re fickle, some hunters give turkeys almost Einstein-like qualities when it comes to intelligence.

It’s a mistake to attribute human-like reasoning to a turkey. What turkeys do on a particular day is tied to stuff they deal with daily, even when no hunters are around. How they react to calling during the spring hunting/breeding season depends, more often than not, on the presence of hens and their interaction with toms, pecking order disputes, fair or foul weather issues and the presence of predators — human or otherwise.

Some hunters swear turkeys learn from their mistakes. I doubt if they realize they make mistakes at all. That said, I admit I often wonder if hunting pressure can alter a tom’s behavior, at least temporarily, when he encounters something that scares him. 

One time, I called up three toms and shot the one I figured was the boss. The remaining two jumped on the flopping bird and were still at it when I got up in plain sight and hurried toward my prize. Surprised, the other gobblers panicked and fled.

In the days that followed, I hunted those toms several more times, and although they always filled the air with their gobbles, they never came all the way in again. At the time, I thought my previous actions were the reason the toms hung up. On second thought, however, I realized it’s normal for hens to go to gobbling toms, and less common for the toms to reverse the process and come looking for hens, which is what hunters want them to do.

Rumor has it that hunters, who rely on turkey calls during preseason scouting, are making the mistake of creating call-shy toms. But is the calling really at fault? Turkeys communicate with each other all the time, and your calling only adds to the mix. It should not have any effect on them other than to elicit a response — unless, of course, you’re careless and spook them. 

There are no absolutes in turkey hunting. Sometimes, a beard-swinging tom will come running to you, and sometimes nothing you do will make him budge. That’s the nature of the game you and I are playing. The turkey, however, is not playing. He’s just being a turkey.

Hunters naturally try to reason why turkeys behave in certain ways on different days. Did we call too much, too little, too raspy or too subtle? Did we yelp twice when we should have yelped a dozen times? Likely, the answer is none of the above. Turkeys might learn some things by example from the hens that hatched them and from their flockmates, but other than that, almost everything they do is in their makeup when they peck their way out of the eggs.

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