TURKEY SPECIAL: Statewide Stats and Forecast

The statewide population is still down a bit from all-time highs, but a good '08 hatch means more mature birds next year.

There seems to be a pile of jakes roaming the woods this spring!

GON has talked with hunters and WRD biologists, and both confirm that all indications point to a pretty stellar turkey hatch last summer, at least when compared to 2007’s poorest reproductive year on record.

“Overall it’s our best reproductive year since 2002. This means we should have a lot more jakes and young hens in the population this coming spring and should hopefully translate into more 2-year-old birds in 2010,” said Bobby Bond, WRD senior-wildlife biologist.

Bobby compiled last summer’s turkey-poult data from the state’s survey, which is conducted every June, July and August by employees with the Game Management, Fisheries and Law-Enforcement sections. WRD employees are asked to record turkey data while driving on their daily routines. They report hens, either with or without poults. They’ll also note how many poults are in a brood. These numbers are compiled to get the average number of poults per hen.

“Regardless of what your population is doing, as far as telling how good a reproductive season we had, poults per hen is still one of the better things we’ve got,” said Bobby.

The statewide poult-per-hen average during the summer of 2008 was 2.3 poults per hen, an impressive jump from 1.1 poults per hen in 2007.

“Last year (summer 2007) was a nightmare, the worst year on record,” said Bobby. “But this (2008) was our best year since 2002. It was good to finally see us go the other direction for a change.”
The state breaks down poult data by physiographic region. The upper and lower coastal regions produced the best hatch, reporting higher poults-per-hen numbers than middle and north Georgia.
“The Piedmont and mountains especially are having habitat being chewed up left and right,” said Bobby. “And in part of the mountains, the forest service’s hands are kind of tied.”
Legal battles between the U.S. Forest Service and environmental groups have halted tree cutting on the forest, a wildlife-management tool that helps grows more turkeys.

“The forest-service land makes up a huge part of the Blue Ridge Mountain area. If you can’t get sunlight on the ground, you can’t produce turkey-nesting habitat or brood habitat,” said Bobby.

Habitat loss and weather are the two biggest factors that play into survival rates on poults.

“You think rain is bad for turkeys, but drought is good. But if you don’t have the rain at the right time, you don’t have the brood-rearing habitat — it doesn’t grow — and you get low survival. The hatch might have been good, but the survival isn’t,” said Kevin Lowrey, WRD biologist and state turkey project coordinator.

Kevin said it’s just hard to define how much rain is too much.

“You don’t need it when they’re hatching. Just prior (to hatch) and three weeks later, that’s ideal,” said Kevin. “You need just enough to grow good nesting cover and brood-rearing habitat. You want poults to have some overhead cover, tall weed fields with an abundance of insects for them to bug in. You don’t get that in drought years.”

WMAs have felt the sting of poor reproductive years. Last year, a record 15,229 hunters chased a WMA gobbler. Those hunters killed 906 birds, the third-lowest harvest in 10 years. The WMA hunter-success rate of 5.9 percent is the lowest it’s been in a decade. Less turkeys simply means fewer killed.

“Right now the best (statewide) estimate is about 300,000 birds,” said Kevin. “An official estimate is done periodically. The last year was 2003. We’ve dropped the official estimate of 350,000 to 300,000, just based on poor production.”

While a 50,000 drop in population shouldn’t be taken lightly, a rebound in the turkey population is something we could see in short time.

“A couple more (good reproductive years) in a row, and it should get us back up,” said Bobby. “Habitat, weather, we just have to see how it goes. The way nature works is it can produce a lot. You have to have your habitat in the right shape and luck of the cards with the weather.”

GON has heard from a few anxious hunters who say birds are already gobbling and strutting, even though the season was still weeks away.

“We get calls from hunters every year wanting us to move the hunting season earlier because they’re gobbling before they get to hunt,” said Bobby. “That’s by design. We want about 50 percent of the breeding done before the season starts. We want some breeding to get done before they get harassed by all of us. And, I’m one of them! I love to be out there opening week.”

Even though our turkey population is off, we’re still living in the glory days of Georgia turkey hunting, even if it’s not the glory we’ve had the last decade or so. Many hunters still say it’s pretty easy to go turkey hunting, hear a bird gobble and have the opportunity to work that bird.

“Seventy-one percent of hunters rate Georgia turkey season as good to excellent over the last seven years. That says a lot,” said Kevin.

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