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Turkasaurus Rex?

Apr 18, 2011

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.

A lesson from statistics

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.

How do we know?

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?

It’s all about HABITAT!

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.

But if it makes you feel better…

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.



Turkeys Don’t Threaten Quail
Turkeys Don’t Threaten Quail
Are these quail about to become lunch? There’s no evidence to suggest they should worry.


Well, I think that the decline of these plump birds, if it happens, is caused by a lot of reasons. It may be due to habitat changes, other predators and the climate, who knows and the author is right to point that out. Turkeys are one specie that may or may not affect the quail's nesting and such.

As a forester never heard of this.

The statement that “nothing has changed in X years” is one heard quite frequently by biologists and land managers. At the risk of sounding disbelieving, please consider that in nature, nothing stays the same (see earlier blog on succession). Succession is a constant force acting on habitats, and without management intervention, it can quickly progress beyond the point where quail thrive (early stages in Missouri). An analogy I often use is that habitat changes are like your hair growing: it happens every day, but slowly enough that you don’t really notice a day-to-day difference. Consider these possible changes on most farms in the past 25 years: weed-free crop fields due to Round-Up Ready® technology; less waste grain in fields due to more efficient combines; continual encroachment of fescue/brome/Reed’s canary grass into thickets and field edges; fewer idle weedy areas due to air conditioned tractors and 15’ bush hogs; loss of shrub/bramble thickets to mowing or crowding out by trees; increased presence of nest predators due to fewer trappers; clearing and conversion of brushy ditches to mowed grass waterways. If none or few of these changes describe your situation, consider change in the surrounding landscape. Even if your property still offers good habitat, populations are not likely to persist on islands of good habitat in an inhospitable sea of poor quality land. As for why your bird population can’t seem to rebound, without seeing the property I can only speculate. But I would offer that on most farms today weedy brood habitat comprised largely of annual broadleaf plants with an open understory is lacking. Many landowners have reported excellent quail response by doing little more than killing fescue and creating weedy cover. For more help, consider contacting your local Private Land Conservationist, or download a quail habitat appraisal guide --Scott Sudkamp

My best friend and I have been hunting the same tract of land (about 120 acres) for the past 25 years. In those 25 years,nothing has changed about the property (that I can see) except the ownership and the quail population. This property has a large drainage ditch running along its near east side from south to north. The ditch holds water year round and is wooded its entire length. The terrain along the ditch varies from smooth to very rough and the vegetation ranges from grass to shrubbery and even blackberry thicket; most of the trees are black locust. The farmer alternates crops with soy beans and corn and no tills most of the time. During the 1980's and early 90's we planned weekend hunting trips with our bird dogs to hunt quail on the property. During an average season, we would harvest approximately 120 birds and estimatedly leave the same number for "seed." Then as the 90's came to an end, the population of birds began to decline at a rapid rate. From one year to the next, the "seed" we had left the previous year could not be found on the property. Only a few stragglers remained and we felt there were too few to open season on them with hopes they would recover the next year. This decline took place in one off-season. We've been scratching our head ever since to figure out what the problem is and my first inclination was that something in the herbicide the farmer was putting on his crops may be rendering the quail sterile and I'm still not convinced that isn't the case. We know that there are raptors and coyotes and bobcats that pose a threat to quail populations, but why can't they reproduce enough to maintain their numbers? I've also read MDC articles describing edge feathering and how it affects quail populations, but I'm also convinced this can't be our problem as there has been no dramatic change in vegetation on the property. The quail survived and flourished on this property for years and years even before we hunted it and then all of a sudden they were gone. I've also hunted rabbits on Conservation ground where quail are plentiful and the cover was much thicker that it is on our hunting ground. I will say that in the past 25 years, we have only seen turkeys on the property one time and they were apparently just passing through. I can see turkeys disturbing quail nests to get to the bugs attracted to them, but I don't think they intentionally predate on quail and I've seen no evidence of it. The property is still an excellent place to hunt deer and geese, but I didn't even hear a bobwhite call this past deer season. If anyone that reads this can help me with a solution, I would appreciate it greatly.

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