Turkeys down, but not out

Albany — When it comes to spring gobbler hunting in New York state, the good old days weren’t so long ago.

But what a difference a decade makes.

A combination of factors – habitat loss, increased predation and Mother Nature – have conspired to send the state’s wild turkey population to its lowest in 20 years, and as a result the spring gobbler kill has seen a corresponding plummet.

And New York is not alone. Traditional turkey-hunting strongholds like Missouri, Texas, Mississippi and neighboring Pennsylvania are also dealing with serious declines in turkey numbers.

In New York, the spring gobbler kill peaked in 2003 when an estimated 36,800 birds were taken. But it has plummeted since then, with just 18,738 shot in 2011, 19,038 in 2012 and 21,515 last spring.

“The declines we’ve seen here in New York are similar to other states,” said DEC wildlife biologist Mike Schiavone, “and a lot of biologists are asking themselves the same questions. It’s a product of populations coming down from peak numbers after restoration (projects), habitat (loss), predation and other factors.”

Mother Nature has also played a role as New York’s turkey population struggles to rebound from historic highs. Wet and cold spring weather impacts nesting success and poult survival, and in recent years that’s been the case in New York.

“From 2009 through 2011 we couldn’t catch a break with the weather,” Schiavone said. “The spring of 2009 was probably the worst (nesting season) since we began doing our poult surveys. 2010 and 2011 were improved but still below average.”

Last year was also below average from a poult production standpoint in many areas. But the 2012 nesting and poult-rearing season, which Schiavone described as “decent,” may set the stage for a slight increase in the spring gobbler harvest this year.

“We’re hoping we’re going to see a modest increase in the harvest this spring, but it’s not going to be a huge jump,” Schiavone said.

A solid nesting season two years out means more 2-year-old longbeards – which comprise the bulk of the statewide kill – will be available to hunters this spring. But last year’s below-average production will likely translate to fewer yearling gobblers, known as jakes, in some areas.

“Bird numbers are at a low,” said Doug Little, a wildlife biologist and Northeast conservation field supervisor for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Even though folks may see good numbers in winter flocks they will disperse into smaller groups or individually over large territories once the weather breaks and we get into spring.”

Predation, too, is being eyed as a factor in the turkey population drop. Schiavone notes the growing fisher and bobcat numbers in some areas of the state, and says nest predators such as raccoons, opossum and skunks “can really do a number on suppressing turkey populations. So we have more predators and less good habitat for poults and nesting – it’s a perfect storm of conditions.”

The habitat issue is a complicated one, since much of New York state is in private landowner hands. But Schiavone says there’s been a renewed interest in the lack of early successional habitat which provides good cover for turkeys, grouse and other wildlife species. And the NWTF’s “Save the Habitat, Save the Hunt” initiative, Little says, will “help steer efforts and dollars toward the highest priority projects we believe will help with a population rebound by improving nesting habitat, brood habitat, forest health and winter foraging habitat.”

The recent winter may be a wild card in the turkey population equation. Typically a tough winter affects young of the year birds more than adults.

“It’s a big question mark, but in a lot of places the birds headed into winter in real good condition because of the abundance of hard and soft mast,” Schiavone said. “And the birds we have radioed so far are still out there ticking along.”

The DEC is in the second year of a four-year study into hen survival and harvest rates, and data from that study is likely to lead to alterations in the fall turkey hunting season structure. Schiavone predicted a new zone map will be in place for the fall of 2015, and DEC will continue the study in 2015 and 2016.

“We want to maximize turkey populations, protect hens and maximize hunter satisfaction,” he said.

Despite the gloom and doom, good turkey hunting still exists across much of New York – just, perhaps, not as good as 10 years ago.

“Central New York is a relative stronghold for bird numbers,” Little said. “There’s a good patchwork of forest lands, openings for brood habitat, young forest cover for nesting, and waste grains from agricultural operations adjacent to conifer stands that provide winter cover. And there are plenty of quality public lands in the area, including state forests and wildlife management areas.”

Schiavone says much of DEC’s Region 4 of eastern New York offers good spring gobbler hunting.

Chautauqua County in western New York is traditionally the top producer of spring gobbler harvests; the 2013 kill was 1,071 – the only county to top the 1,000 mark.

Other noteworthy counties include Delaware (817 birds taken last spring), Cattaraugus (744), Steuben (729), Otsego (723), and Onondaga and Erie (685 each). But even counties in northern New York have pockets of solid turkey numbers.

The season runs from May 1-31, and is preceded by the popular youth turkey hunting weekend April 26-27 for youngsters ages 12-15.

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