Turkey populations can vary with environmental conditions, but turkey numbers are also impacted by hunting, especially over-hunting. Typically, the timing of the spring hunting season coincides with the breeding season for wild turkeys. There is quite a bit of variation in the timing of breeding as you move from southern latitudes to northern latitudes. Breeding, nesting, and hatching occur earlier in the south parts of the wild turkey’s range, while turkey inhabiting northern areas breed later.
Regarldess of the area, the goal for managing the spring hunting season is to give hunters the greatest amount of opportunity to go afield and harvest a bird while minimizing the risk to nesting hens, causing minimum disruption to breeding behavior, and minimizing the risk of overharvest. One university study that examined the timing of turkey hunting seasons in the northeastern U.S. found that the timing was very important in achieving this turkey management objective. To do this, it is suggested that spring hunting season open near the median date for the onset of incubation (when hens are on nests).
One of the most important factors that managers should use when considering the spring hunting season is that spring harvest is limited to gobblers. Research has shown that in many cases hunters can remove a large portion of the gobblers from a population (up to 30%) and still have a healthy turkey population. In most states, spring turkey hunters are allowed to kill only gobblers, but some states still allow “bearded birds” (gobblers and bearded hens). Of course, the vast majority of bearded birds are males, but about 5% of the hens have beards, too.
The removal of hens by hunting, predation, disease, or other means plays a much larger role in limiting turkey abundance. When managing a turkey population, every attempt to minimize the loss of hens during the critical breeding, nesting, and brood-rearing season in the spring should be considered. One way we try to protect hens in the spring is to restrict shooting hours from sunrise to sunset. Some states allow hunting up to 1/2 hour before sunrise, but this could cause mis-identification.
In addition, morning-only hunting will also help protect nesting hens. Incubating hens (hens sitting on eggs in a nest) tend to leave the nest to feed in the afternoon. If hunters are afield in the afternoon then the likelihood that a hen is killed, whether accidentally or illegally could increase. As mentioned, the killing of hens will reduce rates of turkey population growth.
Research has found that poaching can have a negative effect on population growth, but there has not been any conclusive data that “all-day” spring hunting increases accidental or illegal harvests. Other concerns related to all-day hunting include disturbing birds when they are going to the roost in the evening, the potential for people to shoot birds while they are roosted in trees at dusk, and disruption of traditional spring hunting activities such as “roosting” birds at dusk (locating birds at a distance by enticing them to gobble while on the roost).
Turkey harvest rates can vary depending upon the timing of the season. Obviously, if the season starts after the peak of the breeding season then harvest rates will be low. On the other hand, if the spring season “captures” the peak of the breeding season, gobbler harvest will increase. Regardless of success rates, no more than 20% of the gobbler population should be harvested each year.
Fall turkey hunting is also an option. In most states, season lengths and bag limits are based on the varying turkey densities and hunting pressure in each zone. For example, a good mix of woodlands, early successional habitat, and agriculture can support higher turkey population densities and a longer hunting season than poor quality habitats. Of course, turkey population are not he only factors that can affect season lengths. Hunting pressure must also be considered. Turkey populations found in areas with low hunting pressure can support a longer hunting season with a higher bag limit.
Regardless of whether its spring for fall, the timing of the season is important and can dramatically impact the number of birds harvested by hunters. The highest proportion of turkeys killed occurs on opening day, and daily kill diminishes rapidly through the first couple of weeks. However, in the fall, when the opening day of turkey season coincides with the opening day for other game species, harvest is substantially increased because of the increased hunter effort and opportunistic harvest of turkeys.
If warranted, separating the start of turkey season from other hunting seasons will limit the number of birds taken and help maintain a sustainable harvest. In addition, opening hunting seasons as late as possible in the fall will take advantage of the rapid growth of juvenile turkeys during autumn, but can still allow hunters sufficient time to hunt before the dead of winter settles in.
Winter weather can have a big impact on survival of turkeys, particularly jakes (juvenile males) and jennies (juvenile females) that hatched the previous summer. Turkey managers should avoid having hunters pursuing birds during this critical period. In addtition, there are “fair chase” implications of hunting large congregations of turkeys in winter flocks.
In summary, there is a lot of year-to-year variation in wild turkey populations due to the effect of weather and other factors on productivity and survival. The best way to cope with these changes is to continually change season length and bag limit based on changes in size of turkey populations. Often times, this is not feasible at a state or agency level, but can be done on your property if you choose to do so. It’s not a bad idea to harvest turkeys, just make sure the population can handle the losses.