With the regular spring turkey season set to kick off on May 1 in Upstate New York, turkey hunters won’t be surprised to hear that there are fewer birds giving their gobbles, clucks and purrs in the forests and fields of the Empire State. A recently completed hen survival study helps to explain why there are not as many birds around as what many of us would hope.
In 2013, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) initiated a wild turkey hen survival study that net-trapped and banded hundreds of hen turkeys across New York. The birds were outfitted with radio transmitters so that they could be monitored as to their actual locations. The DEC continued to trap and tag hens through 2016, bring the total number to nearly 2,000 birds.
“The goal of the study was to determine hen survival, as well as harvest rates from fall hunting seasons,” said Emilio Rende, certified wildlife biologist with DEC’s Region 9 Bureau of Wildlife. Region 9, which includes the counties of Niagara, Erie, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany, banded and outfitted some 300 birds with transmitters that are 4 inches long, 1-inch thick and about ¾-inch wide.
The transmitters have both a satellite and VHF signal, emitting a live signal with 40 beats and a mortality signal of 80 beats. Wildlife personnel were able to monitor bird movement by satellite and pinpoint a bird’s location should it meet its demise.
“Survivability is critical during the early spring,” Rende said. “We discovered that approximately 40 percent of tagged hens were lost due to predation across the state. In Region 9, that percentage was slightly higher.”
While predation was the primary reason for the loss of the birds, a huge contributing factor was the weather. “Hens become vulnerable during a wet spring,” Rende said. “With wet conditions the scent of the birds will hold longer on the ground and predators can locate the birds and/or the nest easier, especially when habitat quality is not as good.”
While wildlife biologists were usually unable to determine what type of predator was responsible for the turkey termination, the usual suspects were coyote, fox, raccoon and possibly bobcat. Region 9 also had at least one avian predator, a great horned owl. Other sources of mortality included car accidents and hunting. The lowest annual survival rate was in 2013. The highest was 56 percent in 2016.
"The weather ultimately affects poult production, too," says Rende. "Poults are susceptible to cold, wet conditions and they are not surviving. We have not had good production the past several years. That is one of the main drivers for the decline."
As far as the hunting end of things, biologists didn’t know what they would discover. Remember that there were a few external factors that were coming into play that affected the overall results. In 2013 and 2014, there was a four-week season in the fall. In 2015 and 2016, fall hunting was reduced to a two-week season in dedicated areas across the state. However, in the end, there was only a 4 percent difference between the two two-year comparisons, statistically insignificant. There was no statistical difference among any of the four years.
Hunting harvest rates for hens in the fall have been declining. One reason is the lessened participation due to shortened seasons. Another reason is the push by the state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation to limit the taking of the female birds in the fall, the only time that it’s legal to shoot a hen.
“Hen survivability is critical to expand turkey populations,” Rende said. “It is the driving force for the shortened seasons in the fall. We still need to conduct more research to see if a fall hunting season even makes a difference with overall numbers.”
“Many people can’t tell the difference between a jake and a hen,” Rende added. “They are roughly the same size and it’s difficult if you can’t physically see a beard. You may be able to tell by the deepness of a cluck or a yelp, but for the most part the average turkey hunter has a difficult time.”
Diehard turkey hunters have implied that if they need to close the fall season to help bolster numbers, they would be willing to support it. However, many biologists believe that there is insignificant mortality in the fall season, something they refer to as compensatory mortality from a surplus of birds that would try to make it through the winter. Not having a fall season wouldn’t really change things all that much. Others feel that if the season was closed, it may never be opened again and they don’t want to take that chance.
Harvest rates in the fall have been down in recent years. From 2008 to 2017, total harvest is down about 50 percent. At the same time, population numbers are conservatively down 30 to 35 percent according to Rende.
So what does this spring hold for New York turkey hunters this year? We did have an uptick in bird numbers last spring and the 2017 summer survey sightings were up from 2016 as far as public reports and other observations. Harvest numbers in 2018 should be similar to 2017.
Bottom line is that weather, habitat, disease and predator influence all have a significant impact on overall turkey population numbers and wildlife biologists will continue to figure out what’s best for these elusive birds.
Turkey scratchings: The Youth Turkey Hunt Weekend for junior hunters ages 12 to 15 years old was successful for several young nimrods. Check out the online gallery this week to see some of the impressive birds that were taken . . .Safety is still the No. 1 consideration during the turkey seasons because everyone is outfitted with camouflage. Never shoot at sound or movement, try to keep a big tree to your back and always identify your target before you push the safety off. Good luck out there.