Why are Eastern Turkey Numbers Declining (and can hunters do anything about it)?

Eastern Turkey

The populations of the Eastern Turkey are on the decline across most of its range. Admittedly, this is nothing like the beginning of the XX century, when many scientists believe the wild turkey was on its way to extinction. Slow, steady work by federal, state, and non-government organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation led to an increase in populations, but, after a peak in the early 2000s, the trend reversed. 

Some people even believe that the peak of the 2000s was just that – a peak. That the populations at that point rose beyond carrying capacity, and the current downward trend is a return to new normal. But this theory doesn’t fully explain why the turkeys are doing in some states, and in some years, better than in other states and in other years, and in short does not fully agree with what the biologists know about the wild turkey. 

The first thing is, of course, to identify the cause of the decline in turkey numbers. Wildlife departments in many states conduct extensive research, often using the latest satellite tracking technology. In the meanwhile, many hunters call for a reduction in harvest. Only people who don’t understand hunters would find it surprising: most of us are not simply willing to sacrifice our hunting success for the sake of the animals and the environment, but are practicing this self-sacrifice on a regular basis. What is surprising is that hunters and wildlife managers don’t seem to agree on what exactly to do.

All over the East and the South, it is the same story. Wildlife managers are seeking to reduce the duration of the season, or at least to start it later, keeping the same number of available turkey tags. The hunters, on the other hand, are ready to sacrifice some of the tags they may receive, as long as the seasons remain in place, or even start earlier. 

Science supports the former route. As far as we currently know, wild turkey is one of those species whose populations are not limited by predation, but by reproduction. In other words, how many birds end up in the bellies of various predators (including humans) is of relatively little importance. What matters is how many eggs are hatched, and how many poults make it through their first spring and summer. 

A group of wild turkey

Predicting whether you’re going to have a good spring season in any given year is rather easy – unless something extraordinary happened, all you need to do is to look at average poult data from two years before. Poult survival – usually measured in the average number of poults per hen – is the most important factor in wild turkey population ups and downs. And if you look at poult survival data from Eastern Turkey populations, you’ll easily see the cause for concern. 

For a healthy, growing wild turkey population, poult per hen ratio should be between 3 and 4. If it’s one or thereabout, the perspective for the biggest gamebird in America looks bleak: one poult barely replaces the hen, to say nothing of potential loss from predation, human and non-human, decease, and natural causes. Now, in most states within the Eastern Turkey range, the poult per hen ratio fluctuates between 1 and 2, and when it happens to top 2.5, it’s a cause for celebration. 

Poult recruitment depends, first and foremost, on availability of suitable environment, with sufficient food, water, and shelter. In short, it’s not about hunting, it’s about habitat – most of the time. There’s fine print, too. 

The fine print is that wild turkey reproduction goes best when all hens mate at about the same time: during the first wave of gobbling activity. This way, according to Mike Chamberlain, the Terrell Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia (source), all nests hatch at about the same time as well. This greatly increases the odds for poults to survive their first weeks, when they are most vulnerable to predators. If, by contrast, one nest hatches after another, the predators will gather the chicks from the first, move to the second, and so on. It is just like in bird hunting: you’ll get your limit much quicker if the birds flush in small groups, than if they rise all at once.

With this in mind, the wildlife managers’ approach makes perfect sense: first give the birds a chance to reproduce in peace, then hunt them all you want.

What’s in it for hunters? 

The most important thing, perhaps, that there is no reason whatsoever not to go turkey hunting in the spring season. If you’re very concerned about turkey populations in your state, though, you may want to consider giving up the first part of the season, and hunt the “second wave of gobbling”, after all hens have mated. But overall, no turkey hunting is worse for the birds than turkey hunting. When hunting is well regulated, as it is in North America today, hunters’ harvest doesn’t have any noticeable effect on birds numbers; however, the dollars you pay for your license and tags will provide financing for research and habitat improvement activities that are essential for the species’ well-being. 

Landowners who care about wild turkey may want to double-check whether their property provides the right habitat. Food resources and access to water are essential, but the most important thing for wild turkey is cover. And not just one kind of cover, but a number of different habitats, each essential for the birds at different stages of their lives. 

Nesting cover hides the hens as they sit on their eggs. After hatching, poult survival is ensured by the right kind of ground cover: ideally, it is open ground below, covered by a layer of vegetation that is thick enough to cover poults, and just high enough so that the poults run under the cover but the hen can stick its head over it and scan around for predators. Last but not the least, roost cover helps the birds escape predators even after they are out of the poult stage. 

Perhaps the most serious threat, especially for nesting cover, is overgrazing. Excessive use of insecticides, that destroys the invertebrates that are an irreplicable food source for poults, may also seriously reduce turkey numbers. Your state’s Fish and Game department and the local charter of the NWTF will always be happy to provide you with advice about habitat management for wild turkey. 

Finally, there’s the thing about hunting leases, and guided hunts. Many American hunters are either on the fence or openly against the practice when a considerable tract of land is posted and hunts are offered on it for a fee. On the one hand, it does decrease the opportunities to hunt for the average hunter. But on the other hand, habitat management is not free. The habitat generation and preservation activities may not be very expensive in themselves, but could cost quite a bit in lost profit. Offering guided, semi-guided, and self-guided hunts can help cover this loss. If land management is done on a scientific basis, it creates habitat where many species thrive, and a surplus of birds and animals that spread across the neighboring lands – in short, works for common benefit. 


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