Turkey Mathematics

By Tom Cwynar | March 2, 2009
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2009

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.

Missouri’s turkeys were doing so well that, starting in 1978, the Department allowed a fall season. Turkey hunters too fidgety to wait until spring came out in droves for the chance to bag a bird for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. During the peak years of 1986 to 1989, fall hunters harvested from 20,000 to 30,000 turkeys a year.

After the Peak

Understanding that we had a peak in our turkey population is important. When turkeys were being introduced throughout the state, they found ideal habitat and fewer predators, and their numbers naturally expanded exponentially. The turkeys not only filled good habitat, they showed up unexpectedly in places where habitat was considered merely fair.

Eventually, however, our turkey population encountered what wildlife biologists call “environmental resistance.”

“Essentially, they reached a natural limit,” said Dr. Tom Dailey, the Conservation Department resource scientist who is the state’s top turkey biologist. Dailey explained the principle that wildlife populations can’t grow forever.

“Whenever you have a booming population,” he said, “environmental resistance, which includes predation, disease, malnutrition and habitat limitations, will catch up to the population and limit it.”

“We have different habitat and a different predator community than we had 30 years ago,” Dailey said, “which means that we don’t have the turkey conditions we had 30 years ago. In short, things are not as good as they used to be for a turkey.”

The Boom is Over

That doesn’t mean, however, that a bust will follow the boom. Conditions are still great for turkeys in Missouri and we can boast of having some of the best turkey hunting in the country.

“It’s not that we’re in a long-term down trend,” Dailey said. “It’s just that we’re no longer in an uptrend. The problem is that people seem to compare everything to the uptrend.”

What they should expect, instead, is a fairly stable population that will fluctuate within our golden mean. Instead of booms and busts, Dailey said, we will have a population that declines or increases in response to spring and summer weather conditions.

“When it comes to how many turkeys you see this year,” Dailey said, “it’s really about the weather, and lately the weather has not been good for turkey production.”

Dailey said we’ve experienced what he hopes is an unusual bad stretch of weather for turkeys. He cited cool, wet conditions during spring 2005, a 2007 “Easter freeze” that likely killed turkey eggs and that knocked down acorn production for two years, ice storms in December 2007 and January 2008 that stressed birds during winter and record rainfall throughout much of the state during 2008.

“I think turkey hunting will be a lot harder this year,” Dailey said. “Hunters aren’t going to see as many jakes, they’re not going to see as many 2-year-olds, and because of poor production since 2004 they’re not going to see many of those older age classes. What’s more, they’re not going to hear as much gobbling, which is really important to turkey hunters.”

A few hunters might bypass the season because they heard that turkey numbers are down. Other hunters might go out and try their luck but won’t hunt as many days because they’re not going to see or hear as many turkeys. In 2008, 42 percent of spring turkey hunters surveyed rated the season as “good” or “excellent,” down from 55 percent in 2005.

You might think that the reduction in hunters and harvest might help boost the population, but Dailey said our spring turkey season regulations are designed to minimize the effect of hunting on year-to-year turkey abundance. The key is that our regular spring turkey season puts hunters in the woods during the second peak of gobbling activity, after most turkeys have had a chance to breed. This ensures a good supply of poults (young turkeys) to replenish the turkey population.

“Reducing the bag limit in spring,” he said, “would have little effect on the fall population because 99 percent of the spring harvest are males and they are just replaced by new turkeys—poults.”

Reducing the bag limit to one spring turkey could help redistribute hunting success as successful hunters leave the woods after killing one bird, reducing competition for those with unfilled tags. Few hunters, however, have shown support for redistributing hunter success.

OK, then, at least a reduction in fall turkey hunting seems like it would translate into more turkeys for spring hunting, since the harvest includes both male and female turkeys.

“Even if we didn’t shoot some of those birds in the fall,” Dailey explained, “the notion that they all would survive until spring is not true because there is some natural mortality over winter from predation, bad weather, malnutrition, disease and other factors.”

Because the fall firearms season takes place before the deadly effects of winter can take their toll, the fall harvest somewhat replaces winter natural mortality.

Besides, the fall harvest takes only a small percentage of the state’s turkey population, which is currently estimated at about a half-million birds. The 2008 fall harvest, for example, was only 7,391 birds. Although the fall harvest could have noticeable effects locally, say in a neighborhood or on a heavily hunted conservation area, its effect on the statewide population is almost negligible.

According to the most recent Missouri Wildlife Harvest and Population Status Report, authored by Dailey, the fall hunting harvest could “safely” be as high as 50 percent of the spring harvest without compromising the quality of the spring gobbler hunt. In 2008, the fall harvest was only 16 percent of the spring harvest, well short of the amount necessary to trigger any reevaluation of the fall season.

What Can We Do?

Dailey likes to tell the story of a hunter who approached him at the end of a public meeting about a local downturn in turkey numbers and said, “You’re not going to do a darn thing, are you?”

“I really couldn’t respond,” Dailey said, “because we’re already doing all that we can.”

It’s because of Conservation Department efforts, citizen involvement and cooperative landowners that we have as many turkeys as we do. The 25-year translocation effort allowed turkeys to establish themselves in every county of the state. We made it possible for a population boom that made Missouri the envy of the nation in turkey management.

Even though one or two states may have since surpassed Missouri in total harvest, we still can boast of the best quality turkey hunting. That’s because we’ve fine-tuned the timing of our spring turkey season to ensure that turkeys have a chance to breed, but also increases the likelihood that hunters will hear gobblers and have a chance to call them in.

Our state’s turkey hunting regulations are guided by the Missouri Wild Turkey Harvest Management Plan, which was created in 1998 by a committee of citizens and biologists assembled by the Conservation Commission. Each year the Regulations Committee and the Conservation Commission review regulation recommendations that are based on data collected by the Department’s.

“Our annual November review of turkey status is one of the most important tasks,” said Regulations Committee Chairman Dave Erickson. “In addition to biological considerations, we thoroughly review hunter input from surveys, letters and e-mails.”

Dailey said the Department has one of the nation’s most comprehensive approaches to maintaining quality turkey hunting. He said that it takes several staff and a small army of volunteers to conduct annual evaluations which take into account harvest data, hunter attitudes and counts of poults and gobbling activity.

“The Department is ready to respond with regulatory changes if we see evidence that the turkey population and hunting quality take a long-term turn for the worse,” Dailey said. “It’s not necessary yet, though. We are in a wait-and-see-and-hope mode.”

What he is hoping for is a few consecutive years of drier, warmer springs. “We’ve got a good base turkey population, and we’ve been working with the USDA Farm Bill, the National Wild Turkey Federation and other game bird organizations to increase crucial nesting and brood rearing habitat. Everything is in place for a nice bounce in the turkey population, but weather is the key, and that’s out of our control.”

Grounds for Bounce Back

Landowners can set the stage for a turkey comeback when we have good weather by increasing the amount of nesting and brood-rearing habitat on their property.

Mature forests do not make good turkey habitat. Dailey suggests thinning forests to open up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to hit the forest floor. This in turn promotes the growth of grass, forbs and legumes between the trees. This type of woodlands management is going on in many areas to benefit turkeys, quail and other ground-nesting birds.

“I’m talking aggressive thinning,” Dailey said. “It’s cutting out cedars and removing hardwoods to go from forest to woodland and prescribed fire for maintenance. That’s what’s best for turkeys.”

The Conservation Department has partnered with the National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail/Pheasants Forever, Quail Unlimited and the Ruffed Grouse Society to help fund turkey habitat restoration efforts in Missouri. To learn more about the program, contact a private lands specialist through your regional office.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/Editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler