Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

State’s turkeys feeling crunch of harsh winter

Madison – Scott Hull, DNR upland game ecologist, appreciates and
understands concerns for Wisconsin’s wild turkey population. It’s
been a record-setting winter in which some regions, particularly in
southern Wisconsin, have reported record snowfalls that have made
it difficult for wild turkeys to find food and even walk through
deep snow.

Hull isn’t about to say “don’t be concerned about turkeys
surviving the next several weeks,” or until they’ll be able to find
food more easily in some parts of normal turkey range. But he’s not
going to suggest changes in the spring hunting season, including
sale of over-the-counter permits.

“You generally need to make large, significant changes in season
framework to have a significant impact on actual harvest,” Hull
said regarding some suggestions of holding tight to some or all of
the 56,000 over-the-counter permits, slated to go on sale March

“Hunters often are thinking that if we tweak the framework, that
can have a significant impact on actual harvest, but that is almost
universally not true,” he said. “These over-the-counter permits are
mostly for late time periods, where the success rate is low. So if
we were to take 56,000 permits off the table, that isn’t going to
have any meaningful impact on the harvest.”

Spring hunting is restricted to male birds, too, except for
occasional bearded hens taken by hunters.

The concern of some hunters is that due to deep snow, and
several prolonged cold periods, Wisconsin’s wild turkey population
is going to crash.

“Yes, turkeys in some areas could have tough conditions,” Hull
said. “Individual birds are going to die, but the population is not
going to crash.”

Dave Matheys, DNR wildlife biologist in Vernon County, said he’s
up to his knees in snow when he’s in the field.

“But there already are some open south slopes,” Matheys said. “I
have yet to receive a call or hear from anyone who has found a dead
turkey this winter.”

Matheys sees the birds on field-forest edges, along brushy

“I saw 75 birds this morning, hunkered down in areas were there
is less snow. I believe they’re feeding on red cedar berries,
sumac, and any other items they can find in these sunny locations,”
he said. “Much of the snow we’re had has not been real heavy and
wet, but fluffy snow. We received 12 inches during one of the last
snowfalls, and that compressed to four inches within a few

Turkeys can go a long time without food, biologists say.

“Right now many birds are feeding on what we’d call emergency
foods,” Matheys said. “These birds have adapted to these

Bill Ishmael, DNR wildlife supervisor in Dodgeville, said things
are going to be OK. He’s not aware of mortality in any of the
southern counties.

“I saw a flock of 100 birds this morning,” Ishmael said. “They
were out feeding on freshly spread manure. Others are feeding near
the bases of south slopes.”

Ishmael believes the impact of this winter on wildlife, and
turkeys specifically, is going to be determined on how long the
snow cover lasts.

“If we get winter conditions that last through March, we could
have some problems,” Ishmael said. “I hope that doesn’t happen.
There are a few losses that have been reported from the Northern
Region, but not anything super alarming.”

Ishmael agrees with Matheys that wild turkeys are using manure,
sumac fruits, red cedar cones, and bare areas on south slopes to
make do.

“Turkeys are a lot like deer in some ways; they go into an
energy conservation mode when things get tough,” Ishmael said.
“They feed during the warmest times of the day, not normally when
you might expect to see them.

“Turkeys have wings; they can fly, too, or they can sit in roost
trees all day long, if necessary,” he said.

Some researchers have reported that turkeys will constantly
remain in roost trees for as long as two weeks before they run out
of energy and die.

The best thing the public can do for wildlife is to avoid
causing the animals to have to run or fly any more than they
normally would.

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