A Turkey Calling Primer: Context is Critical by Turkey & Turkey Hunting's Lovett E. Williams Jr.

A Turkey Calling Primer: Context is Critical by Turkey & Turkey Hunting's Lovett E. Williams Jr.

March 19, 2010 - Joel

Making the right vocalization in the correct situation is the key to successful turkey calling.

A receptive hen can be attracted by gobbling during the breeding season, but a longbeard might gobble himself blind in November and not attract a hen. Likewise, perfectly imitated lost yelping will not attract a turkey that’s not lost. Making the right call in the proper context is critical to successfully using the turkey’s vocabulary in hunting. Here’s a primer on the 13 calls used and frequently heard in hunting and the contexts to which they pertain.

The kee-kee develops in summer from the lost whistle of the young poult. It’s useful in fall hunting when dealing with scattered family flocks and will call in either sex of young turkeys looking for flockmates. However, the flock must be scattered for the kee-kee to be effective.

Kee-Kee Run

The kee-kee run is merely a kee-kee with yelping at the end. It’s the lost call of young fall turkeys as they assemble and the most important call in fall hunting for young turkeys. A typical kee-kee run has only three or four kee notes. The “run” portion comes in many variants, from two or three yelps to more than 30.  One variation begins with kee notes followed by yelping and ends with additional kee whistles.

A good model for the kee-kee run is three or four
kee notes followed immediately by four or five yelps.
Fall jakes often use a unique four- or five-note keekee
run: “yelp, kee-kee, yelp” or “yelp, kee-kee-kee,
yelp.” That version will attract jakes better than the
longer hen-like renditions.

The kee-kee run can sometimes elicit an answer
from unscattered flocks, but a flock must be scattered
for the kee-kee run to attract a turkey.

Tree Yelp
The tree yelp is a three- to five-note series of soft
yelps uttered as a flock awakens on the morning
roost. The call has a nasal quality because turkeys
make it with their breaks closed or nearly so. The
message is, “I’m here, are you still there?” Sometimes
every turkey in the flock answers the roll

Tree yelps cannot be heard much beyond the roosting area, but the call often gives way to louder yelping — in fact, much of the turkey’s vocabulary —before and immediately after the flock
flies down.

At a suspected roosting area, a tree yelp will often garner a response, which confirms that turkeys are there. A good model is a soft, nasally three- or four yelp series.

Plain Yelp
The plain yelp is longer and louder than a tree yelp and not nasal. Typical examples are not raspy. The notes are evenly separated and at the same pitch and intensity. Longer, louder examples might approach the lost yelp in length and intensity. A plain hen yelp is typically higher pitched than a gobbler yelp, but not always.

There are wide variations in plain yelping, including mixed renditions.  Some begin with one or two clucks, others start with high-pitched sounds similar to a kee-kee and others have only one or two yelps that sound like croaking.

The plain hen yelp has been referred to as a love call, but that’s not correct.  The plain yelp is used during all seasons by both genders and all age classes, except poults. The only love call of the
turkey is the gobble of an adult male in spring.

A plain yelp is perhaps the most useful call in spring gobbler hunting, because horny gobblers sometimes investigate any sound that resembles a hen’s voice.  However, a hen’s voice will interest a gobbler only if he’s in a mating mood. A good model is four or
five quick yelps at moderate volume. 

Lost Yelp
A typical lost yelp has 15 or more notes and is often raspy because the turkey’s voice breaks when it attempts to call loudly. The louder and longer notes sometimes give the impression of desperation. Lost yelping by an adult gobbler is typically slower, lower pitched
and often has a hollow acoustical character.

Lost yelping has excellent directionfinding qualities and is used by adult turkeys to assemble after being separated from the flock. The call is useful for getting a response from any turkey, young or old, that’s seeking company. The turkey making the lost yelp is saying, “I’m looking for company— can anybody hear me?” It’s useful
in spring hunting because loud calling can be heard farther than softer calls, and horny gobblers consider lost hens as sexually appealing as un-lost hens. A good model is six to 10 very loud
yelps at the same pitch with a steady rhythm.

Plain Cluck
The plain cluck is one loud staccato note used by turkeys to attract the attention of another turkey.

Fall turkey hunters using lost yelping typically hear widely spaced clucks when an approaching turkey cannot see the bird it heard calling. The clucking turkey is asking the turkey to show itself. Be careful when you respond.
The turkey is all eyes and can accurately course the direction of sound.

A good model is a series of two or three clucks rendered at five- to 10- second intervals.

Alarm Putt
The alarm putt is a loud, sharp note acoustically similar to the plain cluck. An alarmed turkey normally putts loudly and few times and departs the scene, but if it realizes that a perceived danger is not real, it will stay put, and each successive putt will be weaker, until the sound fades as the turkey resumes its previous activity. Putting is also used by brood hens to quiet their broods and by turkeys to show displeasure.

One function of the alarm putt is to tell a stalking predator it has been detected. If attacked, the flock would fly and scatter, wasting time and energy and risking exposure to other dangers while separated. Thus, curbing an attack is beneficial to turkeys.

The alarm putt is not an encouraging sound when hunting, because it means you have been detected by a turkey, and the sound will alert other turkeys that hear it. Obviously, imitating the alarm putt is not useful in hunting.

In The Voice and Vocabulary of the Wild Turkey, I labeled this call “loud clucking,” which is more descriptive. However, everyone calls it “cutting.” Cutting is a sequence of harsh, closely spaced clucks (or cutts) in short, nonrhythmic bursts. There’s often a period of silence followed by a new burst of cutting. The rapid part of a typical cutting series resembles a flying cackle.

Some cutting turkeys trail into a series of yelps. Cutting is more frequently heard from hens, but both sexes use the call year round.

Cutting is useful in spring hunting to stimulate gobbling and might attract a lost turkey in fall.

Flying Cackle
The flying cackle is an arrhythmic series of loud, harsh, putt-like notes used by a turkey when it’s on the wing. Turkeys don’t make the call every time they fly, however. The individual notes vary in number, pitch and volume, and the call is sometimes only one note that sounds like a loud plain cluck or alarm putt. Turkeys utter longer examples when they fly up to or down from the roost. Birds often introduce the flying cackle with two or three yelps as they take wing. 

This call has become fashionable in spring hunting and calling contests, but it’s almost impossible to render flawlessly on any call. Most attempts sound more like rapid cutting, which has caused some inexperienced hunters to confuse cackling with cutting.

One message the flying cackle conveys to turkeys is the bird is not
flushing from a predator. For a hunter, a flying cackle can give away the distance and direction of a roosting flock.

Plain Purr

Plain purring consists of short, fluttering fluttering, low-volume phrases issued repeatedly by turkeys in a moving flock in close contact. It’s a spacing call. When rendered softly, purring indicates proper spacing and harmony within the flock. When rendered more loudly, it indicates one turkey is too close to another. Both sexes sound much alike purring.

Although purring is sometimes used in calling contests, it’s too soft to be useful in hunting. However, purring might alert a hunter to an approaching flock in heavy cover or from behind.

This call consists of soft putts alternating with brief purrs and indicates mild irritation. Increasing volume indicates a sense of rising concern or sense of anger. Turkeys often approach closer
to the object of concern while sounding the putt-purr.

The putt-purr can sometimes attract a curious turkey within range whether or not the turkey is part of a scattered flock.

Fighting Rattle
The loudest form of purring, this is sometimes called aggressive purring. However, that label is ambiguous, because any purring louder than plain purring indicates a turkey is in an aggressive mood.

The fighting rattle consists of identical phrases of staccato rattles (very loud purring) repeated rapidly and continuously by two or more turkeys engagedin battle, and it’s usually accompanied
by the thrashing of wings and other calls of antagonism.

Hens and gobblers use this call when fighting, and the clamor often attracts other turkeys within hearing. It can be used the change the subject on a stubborn hung-up gobbler.

Everybody knows what gobbling sounds like. The wide range of tonal pitch imparts carrying power to the sound; high sounds travel far through open air, and lower pitches penetrate low vegetation. The purpose of gobbling is to announce the location and mating readiness of a gobbler, which is why the gobble is also acoustically designed for coursing direction.

Some calling instruments are designed especially for gobbling, but they can be hazardous to your health when used at public hunting areas. And gobbling does not usually attract a gobbler.

— Editor’s note: The author has studied the turkey’s voice and produced five audio cassettes and three CDs of recorded turkey calls. He’s the author of The Voice & Vocabulary of the Wild
Turkey, which is now out of print. This article is condensed from his new book, Wild Turkey Hunting & Management, which comes with a narrated CD of these and other recorded calls. Visit his Web
site: www.lovettwilliams.com.

Comment on this Article