“The birds just aren’t talking” is a refrain heard from seasoned spring wild turkey hunters so far this season.
Wild turkeys, particularly at the western end of the state, have seen a decline in numbers for more than five seasons. Causes have gone to an increase in predators such as coyote and fox eating young poults and destroying nests, excess winter snows and rain during the nesting season, and possible diseases that kill young and adult turkey stock.
Coyotes around Western New York have been in good numbers for more than a decade. Serious coyote hunters know these woods dogs range and can be found in moving packs that settle into wherever they have the best options for food and shelter.
In the decade that we have monitored wildlife movement by field signs and trail cameras in Pavilion, coyotes seem to move through in cycles that do not seem to affect deer or turkey numbers. In all those years, we have found less than five deer fawn carcasses and just one sign of a mature wild turkey kill along fields, high hardwoods and swamp edges where we have watched for woods dogs along with other wildlife.
The word among carnivore experts is that coyotes dominate and push foxes off foraging territory, which means turkey predators are ever present. The deer and turkeys we have hunted and watched out back have been subject to the same predation virtually all the while; however, deer numbers remain good to exceptional and turkey tallies have steadily decreased since 2006.
As a side note to that, our dead-of-the-winter walks out back often come upon both coyote and fox tracks crossing the same snow-covered paths. Coyote packs come and go. We will hear their family packs and mating calls just after sunset from several directions one spring season and the next year it’s nothing but spring peepers out there.
All the while, turkey numbers have dipped each year with some slight sign of a leveling off this closer-to-normal spring weather. Weather extremes definitely damage spring turkey hatching survival. Flooding destroys nests in low-lying areas or along a gulch wash. Extreme heat and drought weaken poults and make them more vulnerable to keen-nosed canines and rodents that consume eggs and young turkeys. Yet snows did not curb the increasing numbers of turkeys two and three decades ago.
Buffalo area hunters who headed to mountainous and foothill country along the Southern Tier in the 1950s and 1960s saw and sensed that gobblers that had headed into New York State hill country from Pennsylvania at and after World War II would settle on hillsides, forage next to field edges along high hardwoods and not head northward.
Instead, turkeys that scraped acorns around woodlots also took up in field edges, eating everything from winter wheat to alfalfa and other grasses deer enjoy.
By the turn of this century, turkey hunters in Niagara, Orleans and Monroe counties could call in trophy-sized toms and harvest them at sites in sight of Lake Ontario waters. Even a heavy-kill winter 15 years ago did not eliminate heavy numbers of turkeys.
Solid numbers of poults, hens, jakes and matures all survived and thrived well across northwestern counties as well as the Southern Tier in Central and Western New York for more than a decade before the past decade of decline. Food sources and cover loss have not changed dramatically, so distribution cannot be blamed for the lack of wild turkeys today.
As for diseases, DEC officials continue to study pathogens that might be killing off turkeys. Odd sightings of dead birds not showing predatory marks have been reported, but no definite disease-related turkey kills have been confirmed. The jury is still out on a disease decision.
Curiously, while Western New York turkey experts such as Jim Monteleone, Terry Jones and Pat Hoover, along with Central New York gobbler getter Leo Malone in Sherrill, have to work to hear, see and take birds, reports from farther east, in the Catskills and farther north into Vermont, show better numbers.
Toms continue to mature and pass the 20-pound mark. For example, young Hunter Jahnke, 12, hunting with dad, Aaron Jahnke, near home in Cuba, took a 22-pounder before school on the morning of May 12.
Birds, although scattered and fewer in numbers, have not been wiped out by predators, weather and diseases. Experts suggest working light calls well after morning slow off-roost reconnaissance gobbles. Turkeys fear winds more than a heavy downpour. Even a drenching bout at mid-morning might be worth enduring to bring in a legal shooter.
Spring turkey hunting season continues each day one half hour before sunrise until noon May 31.