Mystery: Why fewer turkeys?

Pittsburgh — This is a mystery only beginning to be explored.

For decades, the news about wild turkeys in Pennsylvania and across the country has been almost universally good. Populations have been expanding in number and distribution, with more opportunities for hunters than ever before.

Whereas America had an estimated 30,000 turkeys total in the years of the Great Depression, there are just fewer than 7 million today, said Mark Hatfield, director of eastern project planning for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

But things are now going in the opposite direction.

Populations in many places are in decline. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, the flock has decreased from a high of about 400,000 in 2001 to about 300,000 today. That’s a drop of 25 percent.

New York’s turkey population is at a 20-year low. In West Virginia, the flock has dropped from a peak of about 200,000 to a bit more than 100,000.

“This is a serious issue over a big part of the landscape – just about everybody who’s got eastern turkeys is scratching their heads wondering what happened,” said Curtis Taylor, chief of wildlife resources for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

“We were riding the curve and all of a sudden the bottom dropped out.”

The question is, is that a normal, cyclical kind of thing or a sign of something gone wrong?

“We’re not sure exactly what’s happening,” said Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commis­sion.

It’s true that, in Pennsylvania at least, several consecutive wet, cold springs have occurred in the last decade or so. That’s certainly hampered poult survival, which depresses populations, Casalena said.

But there’s likely more to this than that, said Taylor. And biologists are concerned.

Scientists from state wildlife agencies in the southeast – who make up what is known as the southeast wild turkey working group – have begun research into what is going on. Their counterparts in Texas and the Midwest are watching that closely, as are the biologists who make up the northeast upland game bird technical committee.

“They’re looking at everything that could be behind these steep declines. It’s been a hot topic,” Taylor said.

There are a lot of theories.

“It could be that part of it is just the natural kind of downturn you see after a peak is achieved,” Casalena said. “That’s sort of the natural curve, that after a restoration phase, you see a bit of a downturn as things reach their own equilibrium.”

In the heyday of turkey restoration, there was a lot of unoccupied habitat, Hatfield added.

“So populations were able to expand very quickly,” he said. “Birds were able to fill those voids. Now those voids have largely been filled.”

Other factors are perhaps coming into play, too, though, Taylor said.

University of Georgia research suggests that perhaps populations are “density dependent,” meaning that hens are producing fewer young because there’s less space available in the woods for them. That study is also looking into the timing of spring seasons. 

The trend across states has been to open spring turkey seasons earlier and earlier to draw in hunters, and to provide more and more opportunity for hunters, Taylor said. In Georgia, for example, spring gobbler season starts in mid-March. That’s two weeks before the first hens have started to roost. South Carolina has seen its turkey limit go to five birds per hunter.

Some biologists are concerned that those kinds of seasons and bag limits – often demanded by hunters and created by political will rather than science, reminiscent of the situation with white-tailed deer in so many places – are causing problems, Taylor said.

“We have been seeing some of those things that are outside the biological bounds,” Hatfield added. “We’ve been moving more into the social realm. The challenge is going to be trying to find some balance between those factors.”

Then there’s the issue of habitat loss.

Nationwide, American is losing about 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat a day to some kind of land conversion or development, Hatfield pointed out. The quality of the remaining habitat is often poorer than in years past because of invasive species.

Timber cutting, which leads to early successional forest habitat, is also much slower to occur on public land especially because the general public often sees any cutting of trees as bad, he added.

All of that means “turkey habitat is lost,” Taylor said.

It could even be that turkeys are suffering from competition with other wildlife. Growing populations of deer and especially black bears compete with them for food, such as often unpredictable crops of acorns, Taylor said.

The University of Georgia research, meanwhile, has shown at least preliminarily that predators such as great horned owls and raccoons are tougher on turkeys than previously thought.

None of that is to say that these are the toughest of times by any stretch, Casalena said. Pennsylvania’s turkey flock was once down to perhaps 5,000 birds. The situation is far better today, she noted.

But there’s a lot to be learned still, she said.

“There are a lot of interesting biological questions out there that we never had to answer before,” she said. “We’re now moving into a new realm of turkey management.”

Hatfield agreed. Nationwide, turkey populations are down 10 to 15 percent from their highs in 2004 or 2005, he said. It’s likely they’ll never get back to that peak, he added.

But that doesn’t mean hunters can’t enjoy good sport with large flocks of birds, he added.

“The heyday of turkey populations, when we had more than 7  million birds – we’ve seen that,” Hatfield said. “Now, if we can sustain what we’re got in the face of all these other factors, I think we’re going to say that’s being successful.”

Taylor is hopeful answers can be found.

“The most important thing is that everybody is looking at this problem. And they’re not looking at it individually, they’re looking at it as a whole,” he said.

“And there are an awful lot of smart people out there.”

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