Cicadas may help turkey poults in southeastern Pennsylvania survive

17 Year Cicada
(Photo by Greg Hoover/Penn State)

It’s no secret that turkey populations in some parts of the state are not doing well, and the fierce debate about whether to ban the use of rifles in the fall turkey season to boost hen survival has focused a lot of attention on the situation.

The emergence of the largest of the broods of 17-year cicadas in the coming weeks should be a boon to turkey poults across much of Pennsylvania. Perhaps those big insects will help boost poult recruitment in problem areas this spring.

Millions of the ugly bugs — up to 1½ inches long, with big, red eyes, hard shells and large wings — will emerge in May and June. Cicadas are expected to appear in the following counties: Adams, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Bucks, Cambria, Carbon, Centre, Chester, Clinton, Columbia, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Elk, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Luzerne, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Mifflin, Monroe, Montgomery, Montour, Northampton, Northumberland, Perry, Philadelphia, Schuylkill, Snyder, Somerset, Union and York.

According to Greg Hoover, retired senior extension associate in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, cicadas will begin to emerge when soil temperatures hit 64 degrees Fahrenheit, which likely will occur in the latter half of May. That’s about the time when turkey poults will need them.

In the Midwest, wildlife biologists have reported higher poult recruitment in years when cicadas hatch. “Many people don’t realize how large of an impact a cicada hatch can have on turkey numbers,” one said recently.

But not in the way you might expect. While turkeys doubtlessly eat cicadas, their presence seems to have a protective effect for poults, according to Jason Lupardus, National Wild Turkey Federation Midwest conservation field supervisor.

“A wide range of predators, including coyotes, birds of prey and raccoons also will eat the cicadas,” he said. “Because they provide an easy meal, the predators fill their bellies. Therefore, more turkeys should survive the summer and fall. Turkeys are not the only animals that eat the cicadas — everything does.”

Adam Butler, coordinator of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ wild turkey program, agrees that there is a positive relationship between cicada hatches and turkey hatches. And he, too, believes that the correlation isn’t so much about an additional food source for turkeys as it is about keeping some other critters fat and happy.

“Several of the nest predators are omnivores, and they are going to eat whatever they can find,” Butler said. “If a raccoon can fill his belly with cicadas, he’s not going to worry about finding a turkey nest to eat. Cicadas serve as a buffer prey for the turkey nest predators.”

Raccoons are considered to be the top predator when it comes to turkey nest invasion, biologists tell us. But in years with significant cicada hatches, it appears nests aren’t as pressured by predators such as raccoons, opossums and skunks.

During a cicada hatch Butler witnessed in 2016, “there were places where the ground was covered with them,” he said. “Those areas seemed to have a really good turkey hatch.”

Categories: Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem, Turkey

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