In 2006 I was at a motel parking lot in Tomahawk, Wis., unloading my truck after a day of hunting ruffed grouse (the other white meat). A fellow hunter pulled in and struck up a conversation, asking how we’d done and had we seen many birds? In the ensuing conversation, he told me that he’d hunted in this particular area since the mid-70s and that grouse numbers were lower than they had ever been. Why am I telling you any of this in a blog about bobwhites? Because this hunter was firmly convinced that turkeys were the reason he now found fewer grouse in the same coverts he had hunted for the past 30 years. Many hunters are convinced that the wild turkey is some super predator, crashing through the thickets and fields like the T. rex from Jurassic Park. But there’s no evidence to suggest this is the case.
One thing that sticks out in my mind more than anything else from a statistics class I once took is that “correlation does not imply causation.” Just because two things happen at the same time does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. In the past 30 years, Missouri’s turkey populations have increased dramatically, while at the same time quail populations have declined. But in that same time period, the price of gasoline has gone up 1,000 percent. Have higher gas prices caused a decline in quail numbers? Of course not. But neither have increased turkey populations. While we can follow the logic that suggests increased turkey numbers could cause reduced quail populations, the evidence for this simply is not there.
Wild turkey populations have been studied extensively throughout their North American range. Dozens of food-habits studies have been undertaken to explore the foods that turkeys consume throughout the year. In examining the crop contents of thousands of turkey crops, wildlife scientists have not reported even a single instance of finding quail, quail eggs or quail parts. Herbert Stoddard, a quail biologist in the 1930s, did report on a case of a turkey destroying a quail nest, but I know of no other such findings in the wildlife management literature.
Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida has a long history of quail research. In a project on quail nesting success, they placed cameras on dozens of bobwhite nests. They found a lot of predators on quail nests (even a deer!), but wild turkeys weren’t among them.
So do I think it’s impossible that turkeys might eat quail chicks? No, in fact I’m pretty sure that turkeys do occasionally nab a newly hatched quail. But consider four things before you curse the turkey as the culprit. First, quail chicks grow very quickly, likely exceeding a turkey’s mouth volume within seven to 10 days. Second, even if turkeys do prey on the occasional bobwhite chick, occasional predation is not enough to cause statewide population declines. Thirdly, numerous other bird species that share the same habitat requirements as bobwhites have experienced very similar population trends. Many of these are not ground-dwelling birds, so blaming burgeoning turkey populations for limiting their populations is suspect. I think few would suggest that turkeys are climbing into shrubs and small trees to eat brown thrashers or Bell’s vireos. Finally, there are many areas throughout Missouri (as well as the entire bobwhite range) where healthy bobwhite populations coexist with robust turkey populations. If turkeys are preying on quail, why are these areas maintaining solid quail populations?
Wild turkeys are not the reason for ruffed grouse declines in the north woods, and they’re not the reason that bobwhite numbers have dropped in Missouri. While there are many factors that negatively influence small game populations, the most important factor continues to be habitat loss. The reason that hunter in Wisconsin wasn’t finding as many grouse as he used to is that the coverts he’s hunted for years have aged to the point where they no longer serve grouses’ needs. The same can be said for many areas where quail used to thrive. What were once weedy, brushy fields have aged and are now grown up into tall trees. Turkeys are more tolerant of this habitat type than quail, and turkeys will use turkey habitat. It doesn’t mean they killed or ran off the quail. The quail just aren’t adapted to these present conditions.
While there’s not a fiber in my body that believes that turkeys are suppressing quail populations, I’m still going to sit against a tree this week and try to shoot one. If you’re still not convinced and want to reduce the turkey population on your property just in case, I’m sure you can find a local “turkey-control specialist” who’d be glad to help!
Audubon of Kansas has more good reading on turkeys and quail.