A “post-game” fireside chat about the just-ended Ohio spring wild turkey hunting season raised a couple of familiar questions – why were the birds silent so much, and what will the seasons ahead look like?
An intriguing suggestion for the lack of gobbling, one that occasionally surfaces in some threads on turkey hunting blogs, is that decades of hunting pressure has selected out the most aggressive birds. In short, the theory goes, we have killed the noisier, more eager toms, leaving the craftier, quieter ones to pass on their genes.
That theory sounds good around the campfire, but there is no real evidence or studies to support it, says Ken Duren, wild turkey biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. He contends that there are two major reasons why birds go silent, the first of which is timing of the season.
As a conservation measure the state purposely and prudently sets the start of the season to begin after the peak of gobbling, for the roughly two weeks before most hens start sitting on their nests. Toms naturally taper off in gobbling in this time, after the hide-and-seek of mating game has peaked, Duren said. Gobbling increases again somewhat toward season’s end as toms get lonely and wander about in search of the odd, receptive hen. But late-season gobbling does not approach anywhere near pre-season gobbling in intensity.
Speaking of which, pre-season calling by turkey hunters on scouting missions is a mistake, Duren said, inasmuch as it helps condition birds to stay silent as they figure out that the excessive, untimely calling is not related to receptive hens. It may be fun and stroke your ego as a caller to elicit ready responses, but it ultimately is unproductive.
The other major factor in silencing is heavy hunting pressure in certain areas — too many hunters, too much calling, too much shooting. Duren cites his own experience this spring as an example. He killed a readily gobbling tom on private land with no hunting pressure in the neighborhood, then had to work hard on heavily worked public land to kill his second bird, which came in silent.
“Gobbling isn’t everything,” he said. “But it obviously is a lot more fun.”
In regard to the other campfire turkey topic, the future, Duren said that 2016 should be a great year for Ohio’s wild turkeys, if not the turkey hunters. That is because a major, cyclical hatch of 17-year cicadas is due across much of the eastern half of the state. Big, juicy cicadas are prime, easy protein for turkey poults and they appear right at the right time after poults hatch. Lots of food equals excellent survival.
The last couple of 17-year cicada cycles were followed by an upswing in gobbler harvest the following year and record harvests two years out, Duren noted. This bodes well for the state’s turkey population, and hunting prospects, in 2017 (lots of jakes) and especially 2018 (longbeards).
Last and not least, if you want to extend your turkey “season,” join the state’s annual public survey of wild turkeys and ruffed grouse by reporting sightings of these gamebirds and their broods.
The brood survey relies on the public to report observations of all wild turkeys and ruffed grouse seen during May, June, July and August. Wildlife watchers and hunters can report observations at the Turkey Brood Survey page on-line at wildohio.gov.
The survey helps predict future wild turkey populations and guide the state’s hunting regulations. More than 6,000 turkeys were reported during the 2014 survey, with an average of 1.76 young turkeys (poults) per adult hen turkey. This average was lower than the long-term average of 2.5 poults per adult hen.
Biologists began tracking summer observations of wild turkeys in 1962. Ruffed grouse were added to the survey in 1999.