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November 4, 2008

Wild turkey reproduction only slightly better this summer

Based on a S.C. Department of Natural Resources survey, reproduction by wild turkeys increased only slightly over 2007 which was the poorest year on record, 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.
After poor reproduction the last three years, it appears that wild turkey reproduction increased in 2008, but this increase was only slight, 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 4.2 poults, 49 percent of hens observed had no poults at all by late summer leading to a total recruitment ratio of 2.1. Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. Both of these statistics were lower than biologists would like to see and represent what could be considered a "break even" situation at best. 
"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 2008 because those types of events were not widespread across the state.  Clearly there may have been broods lost due to strong thunderstorms at the local level, however, this does not explain what can be considered only fair reproduction at the statewide level.           

"At the regional level it appears that reproduction was poorest in the piedmont and mountains and increased slightly moving towards the lower coastal plain.  Perhaps this is related to the pattern of drought that the state is currently experiencing.   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 likely 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 fair reproduction in 2008 mean for the spring turkey hunter? Ruth indicated, "Although reproduction was a little better this year, following the previous three years of poor reproduction the number of mature gobblers (2 years and older) available during the spring of 2009 should be about the same if not lower across most of the state.  The number of jakes (immature gobblers) should also be somewhat lower than hunters like to see.  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 good with a statewide average of 0.71 gobblers to each hen.  The exception was in the piedmont were the gobbler to hen ratio was only 0.37.  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 less than desirable reproduction the last four years."  That is the nice thing about turkeys though; given the right conditions they can naturally bounce back in a short period of time.
"Anyone interested in participating in the annual Summer Turkey Brood Survey is encouraged to sign-up", said Ruth.  The survey period is July 1-August 29 annually and folks who participate typically spend some reasonable amount of time outdoors during that time period.  Cooperators obviously must be able to identify wild turkeys and must be comfortable in telling the difference between hens, poults, and gobblers.  Cooperators are provided with survey forms prior to the survey and a reporting notice and postage paid envelope at the end of the survey period.  If you would like to participate in the survey, send your name and address to Turkey Brood Survey, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202.  You will be added to the cooperator list and receive materials at the end of June 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.

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