Birds in the hand – Field Recording Turkeys in the Black Hills

A stay in the Black Hills of South Dakota

We’ve been chasing sounds for quite a few years and as anyone who spends any time outside knows you’re bound to run into a few birds. In fact, bird sounds are so familiar in any setting that the lack of them sends a warning signal straight to the amygdala and tells you something is wrong.

…birdsongs, water-, and wind-sounds have been shown to be perceived as pleasant, and to have beneficial effects on mood, arousal levels, and cognitive performance. Importantly, in several studies that have reported positive effects of birds on human well-being, higher species diversity was a relevant factor, perhaps because it may indicate the vitality or intactness of natural spaces.

Sure, we had encountered fantastic areas while field recording that was teaming with songbirds and their friends and stopped to capture what we could, but our intent was not focused on them specifically, and with a few exceptions we did not know what the bird was that we were recording. It wasn’t until we spent a month living in the Black Hills of South Dakota that we decided to try field recording the birds themselves.

We settled into a cozy cottage in the Black Hills for the month of November and on our first day we encountered the largest flock of wild turkeys we had ever seen. Coming from New York State we were used to seeing Eastern Wild Turkeys roaming the woods in small groups. But this was an entire colony of giant, silly-looking fowl.

I quickly ran into the house gathered up the field recording gear and crept outside still plugging in and powering up. The moment the turkeys saw me they took off running. I didn’t even know turkeys could run that fast. I followed them, clumsily hurrying down the mountainside, tripping over my headphone cable, getting tangled in the XLR cable, and losing the entire scene.

Now Who’s the Turkey?

Pine trees in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Photo by Monique Boudreau ©2022

Undeterred, I went back to the house, set up the gear, and placed it by the door. Next time I would be ready. The next morning they were right in our back yard calmly scratching and pecking and just being turkeys. I grabbed the gear, smoothly went through the setup, and crept out the front door thinking I would flank them and capture them before they even knew I was there.

Not only are turkeys faster than I thought, but they are also smarter; it was November after all. Once again they took off running. This Black Hills mini-drama played out for another few days. The turkeys show up, I grab the gear, they run away and I still don’t have a sound. Now I was determined.

Getting to know some Birds

Obviously chasing the birds wasn’t going to work. It was time to set up a field recording rig. I mounted the Tascam Portacapture X8 recorder and external battery on a tripod, plugged the shotgun microphone into the recorder, and mounted it to its own tripod. I then connected my android phone to the X8 using the Portacapture Control app.

I set the rig up early in the morning, baited it with some nuts and berries, and sat back to wait – and wait, and wait, and wait. Where did they go? The next day I ran into a local who has lived on the mountain for about 50 years. I explained what I was trying to do and he told me to get some cracked corn, they can’t resist it.

Photo of 6 wild turkeys in the Black Hills of South Dakota, USA
Photo by Monique Boudreau ©2022

I baited the area with the cracked corn and by day two, I had a yard full of turkeys being recorded in 192kHz/32-Bit Stereo. They came back to visit throughout the day, each and every day for the remainder of our stay. One morning we looked out the sliding glass doors and saw the biggest Tom of the group peaking inside, watching us and asking to be fed.


By the time we left the Black Hills, we had developed an appreciation for the turkeys and their quirky charm, we were bitten by the birding bug and can’t wait to record more. You don’t need to be a field recordist to enjoy interacting with wildlife. There are a lot of research findings that show that a simple walk in any greenspace has therapeutic benefits. And one of the key factors is the presence of birdsong. There are over 800 different species of birds in the United States, go find a few of them.

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