Turkey Mathematics

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Published on: Mar. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 10, 2010

Philosophers define the golden mean as the desirable middle ground between excess and deficiency. They suggest we strive for it in all things. Even though hunters and wildlife biologists would prefer to have wildlife populations near “excess,” we likely have arrived at the golden mean in our state’s turkey population.

Along the way, we’ve bumped up against both extremes. Early in our state’s history, turkeys took advantage of Missouri’s great mix of forest and open land to multiply like crazy. They were so numerous that people didn’t even bother to raise them. If someone wanted a bird for the pot, it was easy to go get one.

Then we went the other way. Starting about 1900, turkey numbers began to decline, so much so that hunting for them was halted in 1937. The Conservation Department tried to stop the decline, which they attributed to logging, open grazing and market hunting, by introducing about 14,000 game farm turkeys, but their efforts never took root. At our low point we might have been down to as few as 3,000 birds tucked away in remote areas of the Ozarks.

That’s way too few.

We got smarter, though, and learned that game farm birds just don’t have the moxie to make it in Missouri. Only true wild turkeys do well here. The next management program involved capturing some of our few remaining wild turkeys. We then used this wild brood as a source for turkey introductions in suitable habitats throughout the state. From the program’s start in 1954 to its termination in 1979, the Department trapped more than 2,600 turkeys and released them to 142 areas in 87 Missouri counties.

The management program must have been sound—and the mathematics certainly were—because the wild turkey population boomed. From about 4,000 at the beginning of the 1960s, we might have approached as many as a million wild turkeys in Missouri when the population was peaking in the 1980s.

The number of turkey hunters grew in response to this bounty. During the first modern turkey season which took place April 27–29, 1960, hunters harvested only 94 birds in the 14 counties open to hunting. The length of the seasons, the number of counties open to hunting and the harvest increased through the years. We now have a three-week long spring season and all counties are open to hunting. The spring harvest has at times exceeded 50,000 birds.


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