The Missouri Formula for Turkeys

By Jeff Beringer | April 2, 2005
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2005

MISSOURI has a long-standing turkey hunting tradition. We were one of the first Midwestern states to restore wild turkeys after years of habitat degradation by early settlers and overexploitation by poachers and market hunters.

Restoration efforts began in 1954 and were complete by 1979. After turkeys were restored in Missouri, their offspring were used to re-establish wild populations throughout the Midwest.

Recently Missouri has topped the charts in turkey harvest and projected turkey populations. Based on the most recent spring turkey harvest, we likely have between 600,000 and 800,000 turkeys in Missouri. Interest in turkey hunting also is growing, and groups like the George Clark Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation continue to contribute funds to habitat management practices that enhance Missouri's turkey resource.

A combination of biological and social factors contribute to Missouri's strong turkey population and high quality hunting. We have almost continuous turkey habitat from north to south. Many states have areas or regions that provide a mix of woodlands and agriculture, but they also have areas without any forests. Some have extreme winter conditions that limit turkey populations.

In addition, we have formulated regulations to provide ample hunting and viewing opportunity without impacting population growth. For example, our weekday opener spreads hunting pressure. Limiting hunters to one bird the first week in the spring enables weekend hunters to hunt without interference from hunters that have already taken a bird.

The Department also collects good biological information about the state's turkey flock annually from hunters and turkey brood survey cooperators. A number of Missouri turkey research projects have helped unlock the secrets of turkey movements and survival. While all of these combined factors make a strong turkey population, harvest management that maintains a large, adult gobbler population results in high hunter satisfaction.

Protecting the Flock

Since the first "modern" turkey season in 1960, in which 698 hunters killed 94 turkeys over three days in 14 counties, Missouri has had a tradition of maintaining and enhancing the spring gobbler hunting. The spring season now lasts three weeks. Hunters can take two turkeys, but we still harvest a preponderance of adult gobblers. While populations ebb and flow in relation to good or poor nesting conditions, we have been able to maintain a buffer of adult birds to supplement poor hatches.

Our season timing is the most important reason we continue to have good reproduction and a healthy population of adult gobblers. Early turkey research in the Ozarks suggested that most turkey reproduction occurred during the first two weeks of April, often considered the first peak of gobbling activity. We purposely do not hunt gobblers during this initial period of the breeding activity. The season opening date, which is the Monday closest to April 20, was set in 1960. It was established to accord with the later breeding and nesting period of turkeys in the Missouri Ozarks.

Turkey Timeline

  • 1960 - First modern day spring season, 3 days in 14 south Missouri counties, 1 bird bag and season limit
  • 1963 - Season length increased to 4 days
  • 1966 - Season length increased to 5 days
  • 1967 - Season length increased to 7 days
  • 1970 - Rules change to allow hunters to harvest a male turkey or turkey with a visible beard enacted. Before this, only male turkeys were legal game
  • 1971 - Season length increased to 11 days
  • 1972 - Season length increased to 14 days
  • 1973 - Bag limit increased to 2 birds
  • 1974-75 - Bag limit reduced to 1 bird due to poor hatch in 1973
  • 1976 - Bag limit increased to 2 birds, but only 1 per week
  • 1985 - All 114 counties opened to spring turkey hunting
  • 1998 - Spring turkey season length extended to 3 weeks, and 2 birds could be taken on consecutive days during second and third weeks
  • 2001 - First youth season established

Timing the season the way we do gives hunters good opportunities to call and bag gobbling birds, while ensuring that most hens are bred. An earlier opener would make gobblers more vulnerable to harvest and leave a portion of hens unbred. Over time, this could impact reproductive rates and lead to reduced turkey populations.

Weekday Opener

Opening turkey season on a Monday and limiting harvest to one bird the first week reduces interference rates among hunters. Currently, more than 80 percent of spring turkey hunters report little or no interference from other hunters. Our current three-week season further reduces daily hunting pressure because it encompasses three weeks instead of two.

About 12 percent of hunting trips and 19 percent of harvest occurs on opening day. Hunters take about 8 to 10 percent of their trips on weekends. That's also when about 7 to 9 percent of the harvest occurs. About 67 percent of harvest occurs the during the first week, but only 5 to 8 percent of hunters take two birds. Therefore, hunting pressure tends to be light during the second and third weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the generous season gives weary hunters an excuse to pass up hunting on windy or rainy days, knowing they have more hunting days available.

Tracking Turkeys

Accurate biological information forms the basis for modern day turkey management decisions. It helps biologists understand if turkey populations are growing, declining or remaining statewide and regionally.

Almost 2,000 people record observations of hens and poults each summer. This provides statewide and regional information on the annual turkey hatch. Requiring hunters to check-in their turkeys enables us to calculate the harvest rate of turkeys per square mile so we can identify problem areas or recognize local or regional population shifts.

We can also measure hunter success rates. Since we implemented the three-week season in 1998, turkey harvest per square mile of forest and hunter success rates have continued to climb. This suggests that the season extension has not negatively impacted our turkeys. Had the impact been negative, we would have had the information and could have responded quickly.


Despite a below-average hatch in 2004, Missouri hunters can look forward to another excellent season this spring.

Facing similar prospects, hunters harvested 60,744 turkeys last spring, breaking the previous record of 58,421 turkeys taken in 2003. Franklin County led the state in 2004. Hunters there took 1,099 birds. Runner-up was Laclede County with 1,071 birds, followed by Howell County with 985 birds.

With extended cool temperatures and rain that lasted well into summer, nesting conditions weren't optimal for turkeys in 2004. However, the sheer number of turkeys in Missouri should produce enough birds to keep the population stable.

Hunters encountered fewer jakes during the spring 2004 season, so there may be fewer 2-year-old birds in the woods than usual in 2005.

- Bryan Hendricks

Do you ever wonder why the Department records spur lengths at check stations or requests spur lengths from people checking birds by phone? Spur length is a good indication of a turkey's age. Adult toms with spurs shorter than 1 inch are generally 2-year-old birds. Those with spurs from 1 to 1 3/8 inches 3 to 4 years old, and those with spurs longer than 1 1/2 inches are the grandpas.

We look at the distribution of spur lengths each year and compare them to past years to see if age structures have changed. If we were to see a decline in a certain age group, we would know that something is happening in the turkey population.

The ratio of jakes to adult birds is another way we measure the pulse of the turkey population. If we began to see a preponderance of jakes in the turkey harvest, we might need to scale back on bag limits or season length. On average, jakes account for 20 to 30 percent of the harvest.

Turkey hunting has evolved since the first season in 1960. Today we have more than 125,000 turkey hunters, compared to just 698 in 1960. Annual harvests have increased from 94 birds to more than 60,000 birds. Because of hunters' willingness to provide biological information, coupled with knowledge gained from turkey research projects and the continual monitoring of poult production, we can keep a close watch on Missouri's turkey population and manage it to provide better opportunities for turkey hunters.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - TomCwynar
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler