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Gobbler kill may improve this spring in New York

Posted on April 5, 2012

Albany — Not many states could see their spring gobbler harvest numbers plummet to less than half of what it was 10 years ago but still maintain a reputation as a great turkey-hunting state.

New York, fortunately, is one of those states.

While the Empire State’s spring gobbler harvest has tumbled from a high of nearly 45,000 birds in 2001 to under 19,000 last season, spring gobbler hunting remains hugely popular in New York and there is, in fact, some fine hunting to be had.

“We still have healthy turkey populations, even though we’re down (from previous years),” DEC wildlife biologist Mike Schiavone said. “And we have a lot of turkey hunters, too.”

And this spring, DEC biologists are predicting the gobbler harvest may climb slightly.

“Our 2010 production was below average, but was up from 2009; it was actually good in regions 4 and 5,” Schiavone said of the nesting success of two years ago. “That means there should be more adult gobblers (2-year-old toms, which comprise the bulk of the harvest along with yearling birds, or jakes) available this spring. And with the mild winter we should have good overwinter survival, which is particularly good for young-of-the-year birds.”

National Wild Turkey Federation biologist Doug Little, who covers New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, says the state’s turkey numbers have dipped on the heels of three consecutive years of below-average production, and four poor production years in the last six. He called the production woes “largely weather related” due to wet weather both before and after hatching.

“When wet, hens emit more of an odor and are more efficiently detected by predators,” Little said. “And the bad weather can also negatively impact poults after hatching. Exposure to cold, wet weather can result in mortality. And when the hen is covering the poults to keep them out of the elements it slows their growth because they’re not feeding.”

Schiavone said that after the wet spring and early summer last year, things actually got dry for a while.

“Hopefully the hens were able to raise broods before the deluge in August and September (from tropical storms Lee and Irene),” he said. “Turkey populations can fluctuate a lot and can recover pretty quickly.”

Right now, the talk among the turkey hunting fraternity is how the mild winter and early heat wave could impact hunting. Little, who said he received reports of breeding activity last month, isn’t overly concerned.

“That (breeding activity) is a little earlier than normal,” he said. “But I think this can be a positive for hunters by the time the season starts because it should reduce hen competition early in the season.”

Little says hunters are frustrated by hens often early in the season because juvenile – first spring – hens don’t attempt to nest at the same rate as adult hens unless they’re in prime condition. Coming out of a tough winter, that’s rarely the case. Because they begin their breeding activity later, young hens are more likely to have gobblers in tow early in the season.

“When you combine the early arrival of spring and the mild winter, we’re set up to have more juvenile hens attempt to nest by the time the season starts,” Little said.

Too, hens that lose their nest to predation will attempt to breed again. “Gobblers will be receptive if a hen is out there looking for them even into June,” Little said, “so I’m not concerned about the breeding season ending too early.”

Although the early green-up could lead to some heavier foliage in some areas of the state, as well as an earlier arrival of mosquitoes and blackflies, Little says the foliage will be helpful for nesting success. In an typical year, there’s not much leaf-out occurring in early April when hens usually begin incubating eggs. “That means good quality ground-level nesting cover is hard to come by,” Little said. “The early leaf-out could provide early-season nesting cover benefits we typically don’t have at the onset of nesting activity. Hopefully, this results in improved nest success.”

New York’s 2011 spring gobbler harvest of an estimated 18,738 birds was sharply below the 10-year average of about 32,800, and was about 27 percent below the 2010 take of 25,807. The 2011 harvest decline was largely a product of a smaller number of 2-year-old birds available to hunters due to poor nesting success in 2009. That year saw the lowest poult-per-hen index recorded by DEC since the mid-1990s.

Still, spring gobbler hunting in New York remains hugely popular, and good hunting opportunities can be found almost everywhere in the state. The top five spring gobbler-producing counties last season were Chautauqua (965); Steuben (767); Cattaraugus (707); Oneida (659) and Jefferson (601), even though all those counties saw a lower take than in 2010.

A few counties – Rockland, Chemung, Clinton and Schenectady – saw modest increases in their spring gobbler kill number.

The poor production of 2009 also led to the highest harvest of jakes – 33 percent – since 2006.

This year will make the ninth year of the state’s two-day youth turkey hunt, set for April 21-22. Last year, nearly 7,900 junior hunters – ages 12-15 – killed about 800 birds. That harvest was down by a whopping 50 percent, the product of poor weather in much of the state, poor production in the past couple years, and the fact the second day of the hunt fell on Eastern Sunday.

Last year also marked the first time the youth hunt was held in Suffolk County (Wildlife Management Unit 1C). The youth hunt – but not a regular-season spring gobbler hunt – will be held again this year in Suffolk County.

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