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Anatomy of a Turkey | Vision, Vitals & Unique Qualities

Anatomy of a Turkey | Vision, Vitals & Unique Qualities
February 27, 2022

By: Zack Vucurevich - Whetstone Habitat LLC

I know it doesn’t feel like it with snow on the ground and that stupid groundhog diagnosing us with six more weeks of winter, but spring is just around the corner!

As turkey hunting season is fast approaching, many of us have longbeards on the brain. With deer season in the rearview and taking shed hunting and mushroom picking out of the equation, chasing this unique gamebird around in the woods is our first taste of hunting action for the new year.

But what is it about this bird that makes so many of us obsess about trying to tag one?

I could go on and on about witnessing the woods spring to life (bad pun). Or the cacophony of thunder chickens erupting in sequence across the landscape we hunters tend to gobble up (good pun). The fact of the matter is; when you take the time to sit back and appreciate these birds for how awesome and unique they truly are, I believe it’s the birds themselves that make turkey season so special.

Throughout this article, I’m going to break down the life history, anatomy and behaviors of these incredible critters.

A Brief History

Benjamin Franklin is famously misquoted as stating the wild turkey should have been the National Bird of the United States of America instead of the bald eagle – so I am here to distinguish fact from fowl (great pun).

In a 1784 letter addressed to his daughter Sarah, Franklin stated:

"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk; and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him … the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."

While the above statement could and probably should be interpreted as a bit "tongue-in-cheek," the fact of the matter is that Franklin, along with myself and many of my readers, view the wild turkey with high regard.

At the time of European contact, conservative estimates are that 10 million wild turkeys (composed of six geographic subspecies) blanketed the country, occupying 39 (future) states.

By the early 1900s, with market hunting mostly to blame, wild turkey numbers were declining at an alarming rate.

By 1920, the turkey had already disappeared from 18 of the 39 states. Populations reached an all-time low around 1950, where the popular number you hear is about 30,000 birds remaining. (More recent studies put that figure closer to 150-200,000 birds.)

Thanks to conservation efforts largely attributed to the hunting community, wild turkey can now be found in 49 states with population estimates of roughly 6 million birds!

For more on the history of the wild turkey read this article: "History of The Wild Turkey | The Greatest Conservation Success Story The US Has Ever Seen"

On to the anatomy lesson!

Turkey Vision

By far, the most important defense mechanism for the wild turkey is their vision. With a field of view of 270 degrees, there isn’t much that a turkey can’t see that isn’t directly behind him. Couple this with their amazing ability to see color, and you have yourself a tough prey species to ambush!

Unlike deer, sheep and various other animal species, which have a limited ability to perceive color, the turkey (like most bird species) has eyes that are highly adept at picking up colors.

The eye perceives color through tiny little receptors located in the retina. These receptors come in two forms; rods and cones. Rods are used to detect light and are essential in enhancing peripheral vision, motion detection and depth perception. Cones are used for color detection.

Humans, who generally have good color vision, possess rods, along with three types of cone receptors; red, blue and green, giving us a total of four different types of photoreceptors. We use a combination of these color receptors to interpret colors. Think of the color wheel we all used in art class back in elementary school.

Did that paint the picture for you? (Dang, I’m good)

The eye of the wild turkey, in comparison, possesses seven types of photoreceptors; rods, four single-cone, and two double-cone receptors! This gives a turkey ability to perceive colors on a much larger spectrum than our inferior human eyes.

A turkey can even see ultraviolet colors!

So, think twice about writing your name with urine on that big beech tree next time you're in the turkey woods – it will glow like a neon sign when a turkey sees it!

What does all of this mean to the average (or slightly above average) turkey hunter? Well, the truth of the matter is, biologists aren't sure. We know that turkeys are amazing at their ability to pick up movement (shoutout to rod receptors). This means we need to be slow and methodical about our movements while swinging a shotgun around or scratching the slate call. Pull that friction call in close to your body while using it, let the patterns of your turkey hunting camo help “dampen” the amount of movement associated with using those calls.

But, what about the camo and the decoys themselves?

This is where it gets tricky because we can't tell you what exactly a turkey can see with all of those extra cone receptors. We know that they see colors differently than we do, so just because your decoy looks like a turkey to you doesn't mean that it looks the same to a turkey!

The same can be said for camo.

Due to the diversity of the dyes and materials these manufacturers use for their camo clothes, it's impossible to know EXACTLY how a turkey will perceive each product. But anecdotally, I have noticed that breaking up the human figure is much more important than matching the color of the bark of the tree you are sitting under.

A 3-D outfit such as the Treezyn Leafy Suit will do a fantastic job of accomplishing this.

Turkey Breeding

It’s no secret that we target animals during the breeding season to increase our success rates. People and critters alike behave in strange ways when hormones are running high, and inhibition is running low. During the spring mating season, the hens will create a nest on the ground and set off each day to breed a tom or jake. She will leave her nest, travel to a tom gobbling up in his roost, mate with him and then head back to the nest to lay an egg. After depositing the egg, she goes about her day feeding, dusting, loafing and doing whatever else a turkey does before heading back to her roost. She lays one egg per day and repeats this cycle until she reaches a clutch size of nine-14 eggs, at which point she will stay on that nest, incubating her eggs until they hatch.

In a perfect world, the tom gobbles from his roost, flies down to a posse of eager hens lined up beneath him, ready to breed and then he goes about his day. There is little investment on his part in the form of procreation.

Do you see the conundrum hunters are in?

Our best tactic for getting a tom within range of our barrel is to mimic the calls of a hen, place a decoy that may or may not look like another turkey (see above,) and slowly swing the gun around enough to get a shot off. In essence, we’re trying to force this tom into investing his time and energy into breeding a hen that usually comes to him. We’re trying to force an exception from normalcy into his busy turkey schedule. In other words, we’re trying to make him an offer he can’t refuse.

It kills me to say this, as I love trying to set up off of a roost tree as much as the next guy, but I’ve often found the most productive time to harvest a bird is in the late morning to early afternoon.

My interpretation of this trend is that the male turkey has already bred all of the immediate hens in his vicinity, and he starts getting desperate – like a fraternity brother at closing call. They begin to venture to the ag fields and obvious feeding locations in hopes of spotting one last hen to breed.

That’s where having a quality set of binoculars, such as the Vortex Viper HD, can save your hunt. By spotting the turkey far enough away that you can get set up and in position before he spots you, you can hopefully punch that tag and be back in time for lunch.

Turkey Vitals

Okay, you have successfully called a legal bird into range. Now, where the heck is the best place to shoot the darn thing? The short answer on where to shoot a turkey is a fairly vulgar one – shoot it in the face.

When using a shotgun, the best place to shoot a turkey is in the head. This is for a couple of reasons, but one of the obvious is that you don't want to pepper your breast meat full of metal shot by aiming for the vitals.

Another reason, aside from avoiding destroying the meat, is that turkeys are covered in feathers. Feathers do a couple of things very well; they insulate the bird from the cold weather (think down jackets) and repel moisture. This is great for the bird when it's raining, as the feathers help keep the water away from the body of the bird, but when the liquid is coming out of the body (blood,) these feathers do an equally good job of keeping that liquid in – making a blood trail extremely difficult.

If you have a shotgun – aim for the bird's wattle (the bulbous region of the neck slightly below the head). This gives the shooter more margin for error than aiming at the head itself.

I didn’t forget about all of you die-hard archery hunters. Where is the best place to aim with an arrow? Because I’ve never used them, I’m going to ignore discussing the wide array of "turkey" specific broadheads designed to decapitate the bird or sever the spinal column.

Instead, I will speak to using fixed or mechanical blade broadheads like you would use for deer. The best place to hit a turkey with a broadhead is the heart (go figure). However, the turkey's ability to fluff up its feathers while strutting can make it difficult to pinpoint where those vitals are located. I’ve been witness to several hunters hitting a turkey too high and simply shaving the erect feathers off of its back while the bird was in full strut.

By aiming at center height of the body and slightly forward of the legs, you should be in the sweet spot when the bird is broadside, whether the bird is strutting or not.

When the bird is quartered away or towards you, think about where that arrow will exit and adjust accordingly before you let it fly. Another shot angle I’ve had success with is the “Texas Heart Shot,” where you aim at the base of the tail feathers as the bird is fanned-out and strutting away from you. I caution anyone who tries this that you risk cutting the beard in half as the broadhead exits the front of the bird. Trust me; I've done it!

Good luck to all of you turkey hunters out there chasing longbeards this spring! It’s my favorite time of year to be in the woods. Have fun, and be safe!


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