I get to talk to a lot of turkey hunters each year, and I enjoy every minute of it. I also get asked a lot of questions, and I hear a lot of comments. Since last turkey season, the most repetitive question I have been asked is, “How was your season?” The most redundant statement I’ve heard has been, “It was rough last season.”
I am fortunate to be able to say I had a great season last year, but I would agree that it was pretty quiet in a lot of areas I hunted. These were areas I normally had some measure of success, but the birds either weren’t talking or they weren’t there. When I asked hunters why they rated their seasons as rough, they had similar answers to my own. Not hearing birds was the main complaint. However, overall hunter and harvest numbers reflected a pretty decent 2017 spring turkey season.
This past season an estimated 50,694 hunters killed 25,702 birds; 1,958 of those turkeys were jakes. This was the highest number of jakes killed in a season since the spring of 2013.
While last season’s harvest news is encouraging, there is still concern amongst state biologists and turkey hunters about a decline in turkey populations across the Southeast.
I recently spoke to Kevin Lowrey, WRD’s wild turkey project manager, and we discussed reasons for this decline. I shared with him the results of a survey I saw that asked hunters for their opinions about why they believed the turkey numbers had fallen. The more popular answers were too much pressure, a season limit that was too high, jake harvest, predation, habitat loss and controlled burns during the turkey nesting season.
“I have a feeling we are looking for that one thing we can fix, but it’s a more complex combination of many things, such as urbanization (habitat loss), habitat quality, predation and regional weather patterns,” said Kevin Lowrey, WRD’s wild turkey project manager.
Talking with a number biologists who know turkeys better than I do, I’ve learned that generally when there’s a wildlife problem, it’s not the result of one component but instead a combination of several that snowball into the problem. I believe the same is true with our turkey population declines in recent years.
Alabama Outdoor News (AON) published their Turkey Special several weeks ago, and I found some interesting information about what studies have shown and what biologists are currently seeing just next door. In addition to what is happening in Georgia, I wanted to share with our readers some of Alabama’s insights, too, since we’re experiencing the same issue.
Weather does a play a huge role in the turkey hunting success during a spring season. In Alabama, there had been concern that the state had a lack of mature 3- and 4-year-old birds. However, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) officials say the perception by some that turkeys had simply disappeared just isn’t accurate.
“Hunters who thought they no longer had any turkeys started seeing 3- and 4-year-old turkeys last season,” said Chucks Sykes, the director of WFF and an avid turkey hunter himself. “Obviously, those turkeys were there all along.”
Sykes knows there is a perception among many Alabama turkey hunters that the sky is falling, but he says that their beliefs don’t always include logic.
“The turkey population went through a typical cycle there, and everybody absolutely flipped out,” he said. “The weather was absolutely horrendous for a couple of years when it rained, it was cold and the wind blew. The turkeys aren’t going to gobble when the weather is like that. Most people can only hunt on weekends, and there were so many weekends like that.
“We went through two years of very marginal hatches because of the weather, and the numbers were down. Last year, people were saying they were seeing more turkey poults than the two previous years combined.
“Last year, and I experienced this myself, people were killing 3- and 4-year-old birds that hadn’t been gobbling in the past few previous years.
“I think we’re going to be in really good shape this season if we get the right weather.”
Poor weather in the spring also affects poult survival rates. While weather is a factor, it’s only one factor in the equation of our turkey population declines. Although nothing has been officially determined yet, there is ongoing Georgia research in place to help learn more about the factors that are causing turkey numbers to fall.
“Turkeys have always initiated nests at a high rate, hatched poults (nest success) at a low rate, and poult survival has traditionally been low. None of that has changed or become significantly worse now than in the early 90s,” said Lowrey. “What has happened is that turkey seasons across the Southeast have become longer and opened earlier. A lot of research now is beginning to focus on that issue. Questions need to be asked. If most of the harvest occurs the first two weeks of the season, is that too much pressure too early in the breeding cycle?
“We would love to explore this experimentally on some WMAs here in Georgia, perhaps while we have research ongoing at Cedar Creek and BF Grant. Other states are moving seasons closer to the peak of egg laying, about two weeks prior to peak incubation.”
Alabama’s Auburn University is currently in the fourth year of a five-year wild turkey study. The study, conducted by Dr. Barry Grand and six graduate students, tagged 200 birds across the state that are being monitored for survival and productivity. The study is beginning to reveal some vital data.
The amount of hunter pressure during the period when hens begin laying their eggs is now of enough concern that adjusting season dates has come into play, at least in a few select areas. Six Alabama WMAs are delaying the start to their 2017 seasons to see if the shift has an impact on turkey production.
Arkansas has moved the start of its upcoming season back, and Tennessee and Mississippi are looking into doing the same.
Turkey nest predation and poult predators are a real area of concern, too, according to Steve Barnett with Alabama’s WFF. However, he did say that reproduction numbers can not only vary from region to region in the state, but that they can also vary from property to property. To help offset the predator issue, he said that those who practice good management on their properties, such as burning, thinning and developing a more diverse landscape, are experiencing better production numbers than those who simply plant a few plots.
Another area of concern in light of lower turkey numbers and nesting successes has been the increased use of prescribed fire during the growing season, a period of weeks that lines up with the turkey nesting season.
“I don’t think control burning is the smoking gun,” Lowrey said. “I do believe there are losses, but the positives of controlled burning outweighs the negatives in most situations.”
It’s interesting to look at where we are now when we looked at control burning a few years ago. I, for one, was strongly opposed to any controlled burning during the nesting season, but recent studies have changed my mind.
It has now been shown that controlled burns during the nesting season have very little detrimental influence on an area’s nesting success.
In 2013, Eric Lee Kilburg submitted a thesis to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University. The thesis was entitled, “Wild Turkey Nesting Ecology and Nest Survival in the Presence of Frequent Growing-season Fire.”
The study shed light on the lives of 30 nesting hens during a period when late-season burns were being conducted at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
During the study, it was discovered that growing-season fire had no bearing on what areas hens chose to utilize during the pre-nesting or nesting periods. In fact, it was shown that hens selected locations that had been burned the preceding dormant season, managed opening edges and riparian areas (areas along rivers or streams).
The study also revealed that while 20 percent of the study area was burned during the nesting period, only one of the 30 nests monitored was destroyed by fire.
What growing-season burns yield for turkeys is better brood rearing habitat, while helping keep predation attacks at bay.
However, dormant-season fires are still very valuable, too. It is an important tool for hens prior to nesting since it provides spring forage and enough protective woody cover that aids in increasing nesting success.
The conclusion was made that not only are growing-season fires not detrimental to poult success, but they actually improve habitat while helping protect turkeys against predators. Both dormant season burns and growing-season burns can actually work hand-in-hand together.
This is part of the beauty of wild turkey management. We’re all learning as we go and being able to accept changes, even if it is just changes to our point of view.
In light of all the ingredients that could be affecting our wild turkey populations, I believe that we still should shoulder some responsibility as hunters, sportsmen and women and conservationists where we can.
If we own or lease private property, we should strive to manage our habitat and our birds as best we can. If we can plant plots, operate conduct control burns, manage openings, keep predators in check and leave some seed, then we should do it.
Take advantage of programs that are available through the Georgia Forestry Commission or the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help meet your goals on private property.
I am confident that the combined efforts of all who care about the wild turkey and their future will continue to produce answers and uncover new management practices that will help ensure our great resource will be around for generations to come.
The next step for Georgia is working on the objectives of WRD’s Wild Turkey Strategic Plan, which was signed by the WRD director in November 2017. To review that plan, go to www.georgiawildlife.com/turkey-info.
It’s still too early to know if we’re looking at a push to lower the bag limit or shift statewide season dates. However, I’m of the opinion that we have the best biologists possible working to protect and grow our wild turkey populations.