Based on a S.C. Department of Natural Resources survey, reproduction by wild turkeys was poor for the third year in a row, according to a state wildlife biologist.
Annually since the early 1980’s, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducts a Summer Turkey Brood Survey to estimate reproduction and recruitment of turkeys in South Carolina. The survey involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public.
As was the case the last two years, it appears that wild turkey reproduction was poor to very poor in most regions and statewide, according to Charles Ruth, DNR Deer and Turkey Project supervisor. Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer. Therefore, the survey statistics document poults (young turkeys) that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall. Although average brood size was good with hens averaging 3.6 poults, 58 percent of hens observed had no poults at all by late summer leading to a total recruitment ratio of 1.5. Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. Both of these statistics, hens without poults and recruitment ratio, were the worst that have ever been recorded since the survey began.
"In the Southeast," Ruth said, "Mother Nature often plays a big role in turkey populations with heavy rainfall coupled with cool temperatures during the spring nesting and brood rearing season leading to poor reproductive success." However, that does not appear to be the case in 2007. Although many hunters were concerned about the record cold event that the state experienced at Easter, Ruth said research in states that frequently have freezing temperatures during the nesting season did not find cold temperatures alone to be a big cause of mortality. Chilling of poults associated with wetting appears to be more important. Additionally, the timing of our late freeze was too early in the reproductive season to cause a significant problem.
On the other hand, the state is in the midst of an extreme drought and although dry conditions are typically good for turkey reproduction, there is likely a limit to what constitutes dry in terms of being beneficial to turkeys. Under the conditions that much of the state experienced this summer, the production of food in the form of seeds and insects could have been limited, as could the vegetative growth that is important brood rearing cover.
Finally, "Perhaps we have reached a point in time where the relationship between the turkey population and habitat is simply not as good as it was when turkeys were expanding across the state," said Ruth. We have seen a decline in the deer population in most areas in the last 6-8 years and this is linked to the amount of habitat in pine plantations that are greater than 10 years old. This type of habitat simply does not have high productivity and it may be playing a role in turkey reproduction.
What does poor reproduction by turkeys for three consecutive years mean for the spring turkey hunter? Ruth indicated, "With poor reproduction the last three years the number of mature gobblers (2 years and older) available during the spring of 2008 will likely be lower across most of the state. Not only is the number of adult gobblers expected to be down in 2008, the survey results indicate that the number of jakes (immature gobblers) will be low as well. This is significant because jakes can make up 25 percent of the spring harvest following years of good reproduction." On a positive note, the gobbler to hen ratio remains high in most areas with an average of 0.77 gobblers to each hen. Many experts believe that when gobbler to hen ratios get below 0.5, the quality of hunting can be impacted because hens are extremely available which affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters.
"The bottom line," Ruth said, "is that it will likely take a couple of years of better reproduction to overcome poor reproduction the last three years." That is the nice thing about turkeys; given the right conditions they can naturally bounce back in a short period of time.
Hunters often wonder why DNR does not promote or schedule a fall turkey season, and although there are a number of considerations, poor reproduction like that experienced the past three springs is a very important factor.
"Bear in mind that hunting turkeys in the fall differs drastically from spring gobbler hunting, which is familiar to most hunters," Ruth said. "Not only do hunting and calling techniques differ, fall seasons typically allow hunters to take hens or gobblers. Although DNR monitors turkey reproduction annually, the information is not available until about the same time a fall turkey season would be underway, so it is too late to schedule a fall season based on reproductive success or sound biology. DNR could simply schedule a fall season without regard to reproductive data, but harvesting hens following a summer with poor reproduction would further depress the number of hens potentially leading to a rapid decline in turkeys."
Approximately 45,000 hunters participate in the spring turkey season contributing around $16 million to the state’s economy annually.
DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.