Photo by Donald M. Jones
With much of the spring hunt focused on the first and (where legal) last hour of daylight, it pays to understand turkey roosting habits. While these perch preferences are not etched in stone, the following details will help you narrow your search for preferred roosting sites and understand how the birds use them–fundamental pieces of intelligence that can help make your hunt successful.
East- and northeast-facing slopes make prime roosting areas. The geography protects birds from prevailing westerly winds. The east-facing aspect allows dark-feathered turkeys to soak up the first warming rays of the rising sun. Check out hills, knolls, knobs, hogbacks, and sidehills. Turkeys often choose trees about two-thirds of the way up a slope. They don’t like to be skylined above the crest.
In the South, turkeys will perch over water for additional safety. In the open prairie, where trees are at a premium, wooded riverways and the trees around old homesteads make prime roosting sites. In West Texas, I have seen birds roost on power poles and lines.
Turkeys will fly into a sidehill tree from above, or from a neighboring slope. It might take you a couple of days to figure out how the birds are using the area. If you set up in the morning in hilly country, don’t get super tight to a roost tree and expect birds to drop into your lap. Many times I’ve watched birds sail a quarter mile across a canyon or draw for their morning landing. Try to scout fly down areas, then set up there the following morning.
In flatter country, birds usually flutter straight down in the morning to an opening–a meadow near their roost or just a clearing between trees–so setting up close to the roost can be productive.
The Right Trunk
In general, wild turkeys roost on primary branches in trees with at least 20 to 30 feet of branch-free trunk; this helps foil predators. Older and larger trees (with a trunk 20 inches or larger in diameter) are preferred. But I’ve seen birds roost in giant cottonwoods that two men couldn’t wrap their arms around, and in frail mesquites that looked like they couldn’t support a quail.
Sturdy branches that grow at right angles from the trunk are requisite for easy perching. This essential structure can be the key to identifying which species and size of tree that turkeys prefer to roost in. On one slope it might be a red oak, on a neighboring slope, maybe it’s a grand old sycamore tree.
In many regions of the country, you can predict the favored species of roost tree. In the Midwest, East, and Northeast, oaks (especially mature white oaks) and basswood make prime roosts. Birds often choose pines in inclement weather because their limber limbs tend to bend (and not snap) in stiff winds. In the South and Southeast, cypress, sycamore, live oak, and loblolly pine are favored. On the prairie, river-bottom cottonwoods serve, especially those bordering open fields. In the West, mid-slope ponderosa and other pines provide ideal roosts.
Locate concentrations of droppings and feathers beneath large trees. Squeeze the droppings to assess their freshness. Chalky droppings indicate a retired roost, but moist droppings are a sign that it’s being used and may be a good spot to hunt. Sometimes birds use the same roost daily. More often, turkeys work a circuit of sites, especially in big-woods areas. Roosts are often near feeding areas, because birds forage hard after coming down in the morning and early evening.
When you find a good spot, listen for that first daylight gobble to ring out to confirm that your assessment of roost preferences is correct.