Special Report: Why Are Wild Turkey Numbers Declining in the Eastern U.S.?
In the past decade, turkey numbers have fallen across the east—as much as 65 percent in some places. The question is, why? And what are we doing about it?
One morning in the early 1990s, Dad let me skip school to go on my first turkey hunt. When a gobbler came strutting in to our setup, I missed—but the overall effect was like setting a match to gasoline. I came into my own as a turkey hunter during the early 2000s, when turkey populations were at their modern height. I’ve since hunted across North America and a few other continents for a variety of critters. But there is still nothing I’d rather hunt than a spring gobbler.
Plenty of turkey nuts feel the same, and it’s because of that passion that we are growing increasingly worried. In places, there just aren’t as many turkeys as there once were. I filled my share of tags last season—but I also spent more days without hearing a gobble than I did in the prior two years combined. What I did hear was lots of other turkey hunters saying the same thing.
Of course, hunters like to complain when game populations decline. We blame our turkey woes on too many coyotes, diseases from chicken houses, and those guys who reap turkeys instead of call them in. We think the sky is falling and that state agencies and groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation are just letting it happen. But wild-turkey management is complex, and answers to problems don’t come quickly. State agencies and the NWTF are doing far more to study the decline—and find solutions—than most hunters probably realize.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, turkey populations were exploding. A species that had nearly been extirpated hit an estimated high of almost 7 million birds in 2004 but has seen a slow decline since. The most recent population estimate by the NWTF, from 2014, is 6.2 million birds. That doesn’t seem like a precipitous decline, and it’s not occurring everywhere. Some biologists speculate that once-expanding populations have simply stabilized as the carrying capacity of the habitat is met. But in some states, especially some traditional Eastern wild-turkey strongholds, the numbers suggest something more troubling. In New York, the turkey population has dropped by 40 percent since 2010. In certain Tennessee counties, the harvest has fallen by half. In Arkansas, overall turkey numbers have plummeted by 65 percent (see sidebar at right). Imagine losing two-thirds of your turkeys.
Mark Hatfield, director of conservation administration and a certified biologist for the NWTF, says that the current population trends are a concern and a priority for the NWTF, and that they’re responding to it as they have responded to past issues: through science (which takes time), through partnerships (which they are currently doing), and by raising awareness.
On that last point, here’s what hunters need to know about the potential causes of these declines and what’s being done about it.
Above all other concerns, biologists stress the importance of poult production. In recent years, it seems fewer poults than ever are making it to adulthood. A 2016 brood survey from Missouri, for example, showed that the number of hens observed with poults was down 43 percent from the previous year, and down 34 percent from the five-year average. The average brood size was 3.5 poults, down 19 percent from the five-year average. Kentucky’s 2018 survey had a statewide poult-per-hen (PPH) count of 1.9. Turkey program coordinator Zak Danks, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, says a PPH of 2 is considered the break-even number—at which the population would be neither expanding nor declining—and that hasn’t happened for a few seasons now.
Part of the reason why there are fewer poults is that nesting and brood-rearing habitat isn’t as good as it once was. “Turkeys prefer mixed-age forests with a mosaic of forest types and abundant early-successional habitat. They are a species that thrives on [habitat] disturbance,” Hatfield says. Hens especially need brushy, young growth for nesting. “But we have seen a reduction in active timber management across our forests.”
Danks adds that a loss of CRP lands and ever-more fencerows cleared for crop production hasn’t helped. Wide-scale use of pesticides on those fields also results in fewer insects, the most critical food source for both nesting hens and their broods.
And the problem is compounded when you consider that limited nesting habitat can lead to increased predation. Raccoons, for example, cause significant nest mortality—but that would likely be reduced if nesting habitat were more abundant. Recent studies from the University of Georgia showed that nest predation by raccoons was probably more incidental than targeted because raccoons prefer to forage in lower, wetter areas, while turkeys prefer to nest in drier uplands. But when that nesting cover is scarce, the habitat choices can overlap.
Poult survival after hatching is less understood than nesting success, largely because it’s so difficult to observe tiny poults. Survival rates have been assumed to be less than 50 percent, particularly in the first couple of weeks, because young poults are extremely vulnerable to predators and weather. But there could be other factors at play. Vinnie Johnson, a graduate research assistant with the University of Tennessee, is working on a five-year research project in conjunction with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the NWTF to study wild-turkey ecology in the Volunteer State. Part of that research includes tracking poult survival using cutting-edge capture methods and tiny transmitters that could provide new insights. Only two years into the study, he doesn’t have those answers yet, but poult survival is being monitored more closely than ever before.
I’ve lost count of the number of hunters I’ve heard blame the current turkey decline on chicken manure from commercial poultry operations, which is frequently broadcast on fields as fertilizer and thought to spread disease. This issue isn’t being ignored. A 2016 Tennessee study tested 218 harvested wild birds and 24 domestic turkey poults raised on litter from a chicken house for blackhead (a protozoan parasite). The disease showed up in 1.4 percent of the wild stock (three birds) and 8.3 percent of the domestic poults (two birds). The researchers concluded that while the chicken litter was a possible pathway for transmission, the results were inconclusive, and more testing would need to be done. In other words, there’s no smoking gun here. And while monitoring turkey diseases is important, the reality is that there’s not a lot managers can do to control them.
Which brings us to something both managers and hunters can control.
It’s long been assumed that the moderate harvest of gobblers in the spring has no effect on the population—but some researchers are now taking another look at season dates and structures. It is probably not a coincidence, for example, that some states with severe declines also have liberal seasons that open before winter flocks break up and bag limits of three or more birds.
“Harvest regulations and season dates are one thing that state managers can adjust,” Hatfield says. “Agencies are often under pressure to open seasons early because hunters are scouting and hearing toms. They’re afraid the birds will ‘be done’ by the time the season opens. But seasons that open too early probably disrupt the breeding process. Ideally, you want to time the season so that more than 50 percent of the hens are sitting on the nest by opening day.”
Meanwhile, turkey-hunting gear and tactics have advanced greatly in the past 10 years. Decoys have become hyper-realistic—and when gobblers won’t come to a call, we can fan or reap them. Pop-up blinds let us sit on rainy days, and the effective range of shotguns and loads is now double what it once was. No one is suggesting that we shelve our best gear and tactics—I’ve taken advantage of all the above myself. But as hunter-conservationists, we may need to start asking ourselves if we could shoot fewer birds and still consider it a good season.
The New Normal
The sky is not falling yet. Recent springs in much of the East have been late, cold, and wet—the worst conditions for poult production. A few consecutive good-weather years could have a noticeable impact.
On the local level, if you’re managing the family farm or a lease for deer, make a few moves with turkeys in mind. Plant native grasses. Drop some low-value trees. Skip those hay cuttings in May and June. Every bit of nesting cover helps.
“In general, wild turkeys have a tremendous reproductive capacity,” Vinnie Johnson says, “so if landowners can provide quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat, they will likely see a positive population response.”
Still, the country’s best turkey-hunting years are likely behind us. “The population can’t grow forever,” Danks says. “Given the management pressures that are beyond our control, hunters may be looking at a new normal.”
By The Numbers
The estimated decrease in the national turkey population from 2004 to 2014. This decline isn’t evenly spread out. Instead, the drop has been concentrated in pockets, especially in the East, where it’s been deeply felt by hunters.
The percent decrease in the Arkansas turkey population since the early 2000s, according to the Audubon Society. Other Eastern wild-turkey strongholds like Missouri, Mississippi, and New York have declined 30, 34, and 40 percent, respectively.
The age in days at which a wild-turkey poult is able to fly. Most poult mortality occurs in the period leading up to this stage.
The temperature in degrees Fahrenheit at which a baby turkey can freeze to death on a rainy day.
The percent decrease in the turkey population in Wayne County, Tennessee, since 2010. Several Middle Tennessee counties have experienced sharp declines, prompting researchers to monitor turkeys in those counties specifically.
The number of turkeys taken on opening weekend in Kentucky last season, a 31 percent drop from the year before, and 20 percent less than the five-year average. But that opening weekend was cold and rainy. The remainder of the season, when the weather was better, was down only 5 percent. Bad weather when most hunters are usually in the woods can dramatically affect harvest data.
A Thousand Cuts: What’s Causing the Decline? It’s complicated
Heavy rain and below-average temperatures in May create a double-whammy for poults. Many biologists believe nesting hens are easier for predators to smell when it’s wet, and so more nests are outright destroyed during rainy springs. Young poults are also highly susceptible to freezing to death when rain persists for more than 12 hours and it’s below 52 degrees.
At the height of the turkey restoration, coyotes weren’t even present in much of the Eastern landscape. Now they’re everywhere. Along with foxes, bobcats, and birds of prey, they account for some turkey predation. But nest predators such as opossums, raccoons, and skunks actually do the most damage. Raccoons account for 50 percent or more of turkey-egg destruction.
Turkeys are susceptible to diseases, including blackhead, avian pox, West Nile, and others. Some people have wondered if commercial poultry farms are to blame. A 2016 Tennessee study found a possible link but nothing definitive. Several states are actively testing harvested birds for disease prevalence, but the reality is, not much can be done to control diseases when they are found.
Fewer Nest Sites
Research at the University of Tennessee has tracked hens that moved up to 6 miles from their wintering areas to find nesting sites. The best habitat for poults is full of insects and cover but has an herbaceous layer open enough for the poults to move about in. The best is often a mix of native grasses and forbs, and with changing land-use practices, that type of habitat isn’t as prevalent as it once was.
Hunters account for most adult gobbler mortality. How much does that gobbler take affect the turkey population? Maybe more than we thought. It’s a tightrope, balancing hunter expectations with potentially stricter regulations, because we pay the bills and our numbers are declining. But hunter harvest is the one thing state agencies can adjust as they continue population studies.