I would be exaggerating if I told you that Missouri wild turkeys produced a bumper crop of poults (young turkeys) this year. On the other hand, production has been so dismal the past two years that this year’s numbers are practically enough to make a turkey hunter giddy with excitement.
Every summer volunteers send in reports of the number of wild turkey hens they see and how many poults each hen has with her. During the decades when our turkey flock was small, and turkeys were reproducing like crazy to fill up empty habitat, the annual poult-to-hen ratio sometimes exceeded 4:1. In other words, observers saw more than four poults for every hen they saw.
Those days are gone, because our flock has pretty much filled up all available space. We don’t have room for exponential population growth, so our poult-to-hen ratios have naturally fallen into the more modest one or two poult-per-hen range.
The last year when we had fairly good turkey nesting success statewide was 2006, when the poult-to-hen ratio was 1.6:1. It fell to 1.1 in 2007. You may recall that we had a bizarre Easter freeze that year. Hens had been laying, but the freeze killed those eggs already in nests and sent hens and gobblers back to pre-mating season behavior.
Then, last year, we had all-time record rains through the nesting and poult-rearing season. Little turkeys are extremely susceptible to death by hypothermia until they trade their downy plumage for real feathers. Cool, rainy weather during the first few weeks after hatching can decimate a particular year’s poult crop. Not surprisingly, last year’s poult-to-hen ratio was a near-record low of 1:1.
So, here’s the good news. Early totals from observers indicate this year’s statewide poult-to-hen ratio was 1.2 to one. That is up 8 percent from last year. It isn’t exactly a population boom, but it darned good considering the rain we had during the critical period from mid-May through July. An example is Boone County, where one weather station reported 14.64 inches May 15 through July 31 and a 3 1/2-inch toad-floater on Independence Day.
Hooray for our amazingly hardy wild turkeys! They pulled the fat out of the fire this year. Keep your fingers crossed that the weather is a little kinder to them next spring and summer. Given a break, they will bounce back in no time. Until then, remember that Missouri still has a turkey flock and annual turkey harvests (more than 53,000 in 2008) that are the envy of the nation. Even in bad times, Missouri is to wild turkeys what South Dakota is to ringneck pheasants.
While it is encouraging, this year’s better wild turkey poult production won’t have much effect on the how much gobbling you hear next spring. Two-year-old toms are the most vocal gobblers. Any male turkeys hatched this year will only be jakes (juvenile gobblers) in 2010.
Turkey reproduction differed dramatically in different parts of the state this year. I will have details about those differences in my fall turkey-hunting forecast, which will be posted soon at www.mdc.mo.gov/news/.