No sound can jar a sleep-deprived hunter to rapt attention like wild turkey's gobble. When a gobble rolls through the spring woods it turns an uneventful hunt into instant adventure.
But the tom turkey that unleashed that booming oath doesn't know, or care, about its impact on humans. The gobble's purpose is to announce his presence to all hens within earshot, hopefully to summon their company.
Still, veteran hunters know that even during the turkey's spring mating season, there is no guarantee you'll hear a gobble on any given hunt. Conversely, many deer hunters have heard turkeys gobbling in December. Gobbling behavior is influenced by a wide range of factors, but gobblers can behave differently on successive days under similar conditions. Precipitation, temperature, humidity, time of year, time of day, other turkeys calling and even random sounds such as a coyote howl or a car door slamming can all impact gobbling frequency.
Nothing hones a hunter's understanding of gobbling activity like experience in the woods, and Don Heckman of Camp Hill in Cumberland County has a lot of it. After 40 years hunting turkeys in nearly every state where turkeys live, and a similar span in leadership roles with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Heckman has developed a sense of when to expect lots of gobbling, when not to, and what to do about both.
"I expect to hear the most gobbling on mornings after a clear night, cool but not cold (between 40 and 70 degrees), low humidity, no moon, light to no wind conditions, and with hens and jakes near the gobblers' roosting areas," Heckman said.
One of those perfect mornings, he said, happened last week in South Dakota.
"Clear skies, stars everywhere, cool morning, no moon, and no wind. I got to my listening site about an hour before sunrise and gobblers started gobbling right away," he said, "maybe nine or 10 old toms and three or four jakes were participating in a morning orchestra."
Heckman enjoys turkey hunting too much to stay home when conditions are not perfect, but he knows he has to adapt his tactics to find a willing gobbler.
"I have not experienced heavy gobbling under cold, rainy, snowy or windy conditions, even though I still go into the woods to see what will be happening that morning," Heckman said. "Then you have to be prepared to possibly work a little harder, maybe a little longer. That's why they call it turkey hunting."
Despite the day-to-day influence of external stimuli such as weather and sound, gobbling, to some extent, is seasonal. In a 1968 experiment reported in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, researchers kept domestic male turkeys in soundproof chambers and recorded their gobbling activity for one year. Without any sound stimulation, gobbling still "peaked in the spring, was absent in summer and occurred infrequently during fall and winter."
Heckman's hunting experiences have taught him essentially the same thing.
"Even under less-than-ideal conditions, it is rare to not hear a gobbler on any specific spring morning, midday or late afternoon, but it has happened to me," Heckman said. "As a seasoned turkey hunter I have learned how to prepare myself for a silent day. Or, because I enjoy hunting gobbling and strutting turkeys so much, I may just make up my mind to go home to come back again on another day."
Many hunters, though, can't pick their day -- they must hunt when they can.
"Turkey hunters learn the hard way, and over the years have played many a hunch when all else seems to be lost for the day," he advised. "And it can happen -- out of nowhere, a gobbler gobbles and the game is on."
Heckman said that although he enjoys hunting when gobbling activity is high, hunters often tend to depend too much on gobbling to locate a bird.
"Good woodsmanship can make up for silent turkeys," he observed. "After gaining confidence in knowing the habitat, the lay of the land, which area to walk in and where to stay away from until after fly-down, and learning turkey habits, then you become more accomplished and confident, regardless of how much the birds are gobbling on any given day."