If the only bird you plan on carving this Thanksgiving is "tofurkey," you might as well stop reading. The same goes for those who prefer not to think about how their stuffed Tom gets from the field -- or more likely, farm -- to table. For the more adventurous, here's something that might rattle your wattles: Act like a Pilgrim and bag your own.
Those willing to pull on their boots and hit forest and field will face challenges on several fronts. The fall turkey hunting season in California lasts only 16 days, from last Saturday through Nov. 23, and those without a license should act quickly because obtaining one requires taking a 10-hour safety education course.
Also, the recent wildfires ravaged a good chunk of Southern California and a fair amount of prime wild turkey habitat. Plus, turkeys are tougher to nab than a cheap seat at the Disney Concert Hall.
To bring home the big bird, you need to forget everything you think you know about turkeys. They're not the fat, blinking, dumb, domestic birds that are farm-raised.
Among the wariest of any game -- bird or mammal -- the wild turkey has acute hearing and sharp eyesight estimated at 10 times better than a human's. They also can run up to 25 mph and fly at 55 mph.
Wild turkeys are not native to California but were brought here decades ago by state game officials. This helped boost the wild turkey population from about 5,000 in 1970 to about 100,000 today.
But not everyone is happy about their presence here. Some people consider them a nuisance, and some parks and recreation officials say turkeys rob native wildlife of food.
Wild turkeys are hip to many hunting tricks, so strategize accordingly. Full head-to-toe camouflage is essential. Chamois Anderson of the state Department of Fish and Game goes as far as recommending that hunters paint their eyelids. And never wear red, white or blue, unless you want other hunters to mistake you for a turkey head.
Be prepared to sit in the woods for a good part of the day. Turkey hunting involves using your voice or a calling device to lure the birds within shooting range.
Fall hunting is tougher than spring -- the mating season for turkeys -- when it's easier to lure a love-addled turkey that has its guard down.
In the fall, a lot of time is often spent searching for the big-brood flocks that turkeys form. Two clues that you are on the right path: turkey scratchings and droppings, especially near water.
The key is to find out where a flock congregates, then call the birds back to that spot. Sometimes a call will attract a hen who has been fooled into thinking one of her young is missing.
This is when time spent practicing turkey calls pays off. The wild turkey uses at least 28 distinct calls, from the gobble -- which a hunter should use sparingly to avoid being confused with a turkey by other hunters -- to the putt, an alarm call the bird often emits just before flying away from said hunter.
Just getting a turkey to return a hunter's call is an accomplishment. If the flock actually returns, it's time to celebrate.
Knowing what call to make when is something of a mystery -- wild turkeys have become conditioned to know that too much vocalizing gives away their location to predators.
If the turkeys have been induced to return, the obvious goal is to pick one within shooting range. Rob Keck of the National Wild Turkey Federation says if the bird can't be taken within 30 yards, a rifle hunter should "let him walk." Stalking a hen (female) or gobbler (male) is a matter of preference. Gobblers -- warier than hens and younger males, called jakes -- are considered more of a challenge and are prized for their showy tails.
Wild turkeys can be found all over California. They prefer open areas as well as forests, which they use as cover from predators and for roosting in trees at night. Because of the fires, the nearest and best available turkey hunting is farther north for now, inland from the Central Coast in the Los Padres National Forest. The Rio Grande subspecies of turkey is found in the oak and pine foothills near the Central Valley, while Merriam's turkeys tend to inhabit forested, rugged mountains above 3,500 feet in the northern Sierra Nevada and in San Diego County, where hunting areas were affected by fire.
Even if your aim is to simply view the largest game bird in America -- adult males weigh an average of 20 pounds and measure 48 inches from beak to tail -- the same stealth tactics apply. Calling any wild creature in close can be a thrill. Remember: "It's the 'gobble,' not the 'gobbler,' that makes the hunt special," Keck said. And those who don't bag one can always stalk the meat bin at the supermarket.
To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to www.latimes.com/juliesheer.
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The birds emit more than two dozen calls, but only about 10 are distinguishable. Here are some you're likely to hear:
Gobble: One of the main vocalizations of the male wild turkey, used primarily in the spring to let hens know he's in the area.
Cluck: Consists of one or more short, staccato notes, generally used to gain another turkey's attention.
Tree yelp: The first turkey call heard in the morning, it is usually a series of soft, muffled yelps made from birds roosting in trees.
Purr: There are two types -- a soft, rolling call usually made by contented turkeys that are feeding; or a fighting call made when turkeys are agitated. Cut: A series of fast, loud, erratic single notes, usually emitted by an aggravated hen defending her nesting territory from other hens.
Hen assembly call: A series of loud yelps made by an adult hen to gather her flock of young, called poults.
Kee kee run: Call made by a lost young turkey trying to reassemble its flock, especially in the fall.
To hear turkey calls online, go to the National Wild Turkey Federation's Web site, www.nwtf.org/specialevents/callingcontestturkeycalls.html.
-- Julie Sheer
Keep it legal
Where to call: For information on turkey hunting and access to hunting areas, call the state Department of Fish and Game, (858) 467-4201. A California resident hunting license is $29.50 and an upland game bird stamp is $6.25. Fall regulations allow one bird of either sex to be taken.