Where Have All the Turkeys Gone?

Are you seeing as many turkeys as you normally do?  How many gobblers have you been hearing on your spring turkey hunting trips?  If your answers to these questions is either “no” or “not very many” you must be wondering why.  Opinions are plentiful about the apparent decline in turkey numbers.  Some probably have some merit, others not so much.  One thing is certain, many states across the south are reporting reduced turkey populations.  The chart below shows the reproductive trends in Georgia for the last 35 years based on poult to hen ratios as measured by their wildlife biologists. Ratios above 2.0 indicate an average to good hatch, while <2.0 is not good.  Georgia numbers have generally been under 2 for the last 10+ years.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this statewide trend in turkey reproduction is not good.  Let’s explore some of the possible reasons for these declines.

turkey-chart

Prescribed Burning

The relationship between turkeys and prescribed burning has been researched for many years.  More recently, much of this research has focused on the impact of growing season burning (normally considered to be burns conducted after April 1) on turkey reproduction and habitat quality.  Research indicates that hens prefer to nest in areas that have been burned within the last 2 years.  Areas not burned within the last 2 years are generally avoided by hens.  Without question, prescribed burning is a very important tool in the turkey management tool box.  When those burns should be conducted is still up for debate.  One study found little difference in insect abundance between winter and spring burned areas, while another study found a sharp increase in the average number of insects the first year after a growing season burn.  Burns conducted before April 1 (i.e. cool season) have little impact on actual turkey nests, however growing season burns have been shown to destroy some nests.  Are the nest losses enough to impact the overall turkey population?  The research says no.  Studies in Mississippi and Georgia found that while a few nests were destroyed by growing season fires, the overall percentages were low and in many cases the hens re-nested further reducing the impact of these losses.  Both of these studies concluded that overall habitat improvement outweighed the loss of a few nests.

Regardless of your opinion on the impacts of growing season burning, it is hard to imagine that enough growing season burning is being done to impact turkey populations throughout the south.  A more likely cause for reduced turkey numbers is complete lack of prescribe burning on millions of acres in the southeast.  I travel a lot across the south, and with the exception of large quail plantations and most federal properties, regularly burned tracts are the exception rather than the norm.  The limited use of prescribed fire should be a major concern of southern turkey hunters.

Predators

Like burning, the impacts of predators on turkey populations has been well researched.  There is no doubt that predators impact turkey numbers but which predators are doing the most damage?  Historically, nest predators such as raccoons, opossums, and skunks have had a far greater impact on turkey reproduction than larger predators like bobcats and coyotes.  Coyotes have been receiving a lot of press lately about their impacts on wildlife populations.  I’m sure that coyotes will opportunistically eat turkey eggs, poults, and hens, but the most current research indicates that their impacts to population numbers is not nearly as great as the egg eaters mentioned above.

Should you practice predator control on your property?  The short answer is certainly “yes”, but don’t expect that removing a few coons and possums will put a turkey behind every bush.  Intensive predator control is expensive, labor intensive and research shows that while it can be successful, if habitat conditions are not suitable to accommodate the additional reproduction, then your efforts will not be rewarded.  Take home message: Get your habitat in shape before undertaking an intensive predator control project.

Hunting

It is a generally accepted premise that harvesting a limited numbers of males from a population does not impact overall population health.  This is the theory behind gobbler only spring turkey hunting.  Harvesting gobblers after hens have been bred has little impact to overall turkey numbers.  While that is true I would like to offer another point of view to this accepted principle.  If you agree that turkey reproduction has been trending down as indicated by the previous chart, then fewer turkeys, thus few gobblers, are being produced each year.    Turkey hunter numbers have been increasing.  Turkey hunting technology and the use of gadgets (decoys, blinds, etc.) has without a doubt increased hunter success.  Yet with this increased success, season bag limits have not changed in most southern states in many years.  Here is the rub: if fewer gobblers are being hatched and more gobblers are being killed, than it would stand to reason that after a few seasons the numbers of gobblers heard on a spring morning would be reduced.  Is this the reason hunters seem to be hearing less gobbling each spring?  Is it time to consider reducing bag limits, making jakes illegal, and/or shortening the season?

Discussion

There is certainly no silver bullet when it comes to increasing turkey populations.  No single event or issue is responsible for the decline, but more likely it is a combination of many things.  That is the way things work in nature.

If you are concerned about burning up turkey nests, schedule your burning earlier in the year.  Most hens begin to nest, at least in our part of the world, in late March to early April.  Incubation, on average, begins in mid-April.  Whether you schedule your burns early or prefer growing season burns, please burn – it is extremely important to burn!

I would encourage everyone to try trapping and predator hunting.  These are very interesting sports that require improving your outdoor skills and knowledge of the critter you pursue.  Coyote hunting is gaining popularity, especially by those concerned about deer fawn production.  Give it a try, you might like it!

Spring turkey hunting is a grand sport and one that I have enjoyed for years.  I fear that with the increased emphasis on killing turkeys, we are losing the essence of the sport.  Are we at a turkey hunting crossroads where consideration should be given to reducing bag limits?  I’m sure there is a wide divergence of opinion on this, but we should at least be having a conversation about it.

One positive to come from these downward trending numbers is that increased research dollars are being spent to further understand turkey ecology.  Turkeys were heavily researched in the 1970’s and 1980’s as turkey populations were being rebuilt and expanding.  Turkey research waned some in the 90’s but is picking up steam now.  While there are no simple answers, hopefully recent and upcoming research findings will put us back on the path to increasing turkey numbers.  We certainly hope so.

What to Do About Coyotes?!

Wile E. Coyote has been front and center in many southeastern publications for the last few years. From popular hunting journals to scientific publications, much as been written about the impacts of coyotes on whitetail deer populations, namely the impact on fawn recruitment. Almost every deer hunter you talk to blames low deer numbers on coyotes. Numerous scientific research projects have documented low fawn recruitment resulting from coyote predation. Several studies have shown dramatic increases in fawn survival following coyote removal, while others show mixed results.

So what are we to believe? Let’s start with what we know. Coyotes arrived in the southeastern U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the result of relocation by “fox hunters.” While these relocations were not necessarily legal, they were certainly successful and since that time coyote populations have spread and are now common throughout the South. During the 1980s and ‘90s deer populations were also expanding across the South, filling vacant habitats and in fact over-populating many areas. Along about this time, either-sex deer harvest began to take hold in an effort to balance deer numbers with habitat conditions. We can be certain that coyotes were eating deer fawns during this period, however deer populations were so high and coyote populations relatively low, that no one noticed. In the early 2000s the either-sex harvests were beginning to have an impact on herd numbers and coyote numbers were starting to increase. We were setting up for the perfect storm!

A recent study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service at the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, South Carolina has provided some interesting and revealing facts about coyote induced fawn mortality. A 3-year removal effort, conducted on 3 – 8,000 acre areas, removed a total of 474 coyotes. This is an average of 158 coyotes per year (there was no significant difference in the number of coyotes caught between years) and 4.2 coyotes removed per square mile per year. There was a 78% reduction in coyotes following the first trapping season (mid-January – March) and it leveled off after that. Sixty-four percent of coyotes removed were <1 year old.

Fawn survival increased from 21% the year before trapping to 51% the 1st year after trapping, decreased to 23% in year 2, and increased to 43% in year 3. While there was an overall increase in fawn recruitment during the trapping period, it was modest and highly variable. One important thing they did figure out during this study is that coyote predation on fawns was additive mortality, meaning that this mortality would not have occurred had the coyotes not been present. Another interesting thing they learned was that habitat cover, i.e. heavy cover to hide fawns, had no impact on fawn survival.

So where does this leave us? First of all, coyotes are here to stay. Coyote control programs have been going on out West for decades and they still have plenty! Coyotes do prey on deer, primarily on young fawns, and can impact overall deer numbers. Coyote trapping can provide short-term relief for fawns; however trapping is expensive and requires knowledgeable trappers to be successful. If the decision is made to trap, it should be done just prior to the peak of fawn populations, which here in south Georgia is around August 1.

Assuming an aggressive coyote trapping program is not feasible for most landowners, what options are left for maintaining acceptable deer herds? There are two: habitat improvement and managing the doe harvest. There is no substitute for good habitat management. Prescribed burning, selective herbicide use, timber harvest (both thinning and clear-cutting), and year-round supplemental feeding, via food plots and/or feeders (key here is year-round) will improve habitat conditions for deer and many other wildlife species.

It took a long time for many hunters to embrace either-sex harvest but once we did, we really did! It is not something we are willing to give up easily nor should we, but we need to be smart about it. To really know if your property can handle doe harvest you need some idea of herd dynamics: population structure, buck/doe ratio, doe/fawn ratio, fawn recruitment, etc. These numbers can be collected with a properly designed camera survey. Collecting harvest data on deer killed on your property is also an important part of the equation.

Shooting an occasional coyote when the opportunity arises, while it certainly may make you feel better, will have little impact on your deer herd. A good trapping program can help but if you have limited resources, those resources are much better spent on habitat improvement efforts. Additionally, a reduced doe harvest may be necessary to compensate for coyote predation. As we have said many times, there is not a Silver Bullet in deer management so let’s control the things we can – doe harvest and habitat and not lose a lot of sleep over things we can’t – coyotes.

Enjoy your season and good hunting.

Joe McGlincy

Certified Wildlife Biologist

Wiregrass Ecological Associates