Turkey time: First spring season kicks off April 15

St. Paul — Minnesota’s wild turkey season will open Wednesday, and wildlife biologists around the state feel good about where the turkey population is at the moment.

And that’s despite some having received calls of concern from handfuls of hunters who haven’t observed many birds so far this spring.

“That always seems to be a problem before the turkey season,” said Rick Horton, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s regional biologist for Minnesota. “They go into big flocks in the winter, and people say they’re not seeing any birds.

But then the flocks spread out and everything’s fine.”

Horton said birds should have had no trouble getting through this past winter, which was cold at times but didn’t drop much snow on the ground. Heavy snows can make it harder for turkeys to find food.

Horton, asked how the two previous harsh winters might affect turkey numbers, said that shouldn’t be an issue.

“Certainly, gobblers that we are hunting this year would have been hatched two years ago, and two years it was a hard winter and a long spring, but we were surprised at turkey survival in those harsh winters,” he said. “It was a lot better than we thought it would be. There were only a few reports of dead birds. They got through those winters just fine.”

Kevin Kotts, the DNR’s Glenwood area wildlife manager, in west-central Minnesota, said the last winter was mild enough that birds should have made it through without trouble. In recent weeks, birds in his area began displaying.

“I wasn’t seeing a lot of turkeys, but now I am,” Kotts said. “I’m thinking they are pretty well spread out now. We didn’t have much snow here, so they may not have bunched up much in the first place.”

Indeed, those harsher winters, with more snow cover, tend to lead to larger flocks of turkeys, which often bunch up near food sources. In those years, the DNR hears more complaints from farmers and others, with birds getting into cover crops or causing a nuisance from a noise and droppings standpoint, Kotts said.

“We didn’t get any of those calls this year,” he said. “This year, the ground was barely white.”

Don Nelson, the DNR’s property manager at the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, said the flocks in his area had just started to break up late last week.

“We’ve seen strutting behavior for close to a month now,” Nelson said. “The birds seemed to come through winter in decent shape. We saw some pretty decent flocks throughout most of winter.”

But Nelson said a friend who lives north of the property had yet to hear a gobble.

“That first warm spell, the third week of March, that’s when I first started to hear the birds gobbling,” Nelson said. “We’re still seeing big flocks of birds. But we’re starting to see the flocks loosening up.”

While turkeys, by and large, did get through the harsh winters of 2013 and 2014, Nelson said it might have had a little bit of an effect on numbers in his area.

“We had a lot of deep snow for a long period of time,” he said. “They can tolerate cold, but you have that deep snow for a long time and they lose access to food. And a cold, wet spring is going to have at least as much impact on turkeys as a hard winter will.”

Nelson said the situation is far from bleak.

“I don’t think our recruitment was bad last year,” he said. “There will be more jakes in the flock than we saw last spring. Bird numbers are pretty decent right now. We may be down a little bit, but not by much. … By the time the opener comes around, it should be a pretty good season.”

In the north-central portion of the state, Beau Liddell, the DNR’s Little Falls area wildlife manager, said the drop-off in harvest numbers in 2013 was more a function of bad weather that made it tougher on hunters. 

“We may have lost a few during that late snow year,” Liddell said. “But harvest recovered last year to pretty much normal. It was almost identical to what it was in 2012.”

He, too, has heard from hunters who think numbers may be down at the moment.

“We are on par with equaling, if not setting, record turkey harvests every year,” Liddell said. “There are certainly people out there that think we have fewer turkeys than we used to. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I don’t necessarily negate that either. But bottom line is that there’s plenty of birds around. We’re seeing them all over the place. They’ve been busy strutting since early March.”

Liddell has noticed that the birds this year so far are ahead of where they were last year.

“No question we’re probably going to have a slightly higher percentage of birds already bred and on the nest by the time the season starts,” he said. “I have no reason to suspect that it’s going to be a poor harvest year for turkeys, nor am I concerned about their population.”

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