Georgia’s Turkey Situation

Daryl Kirby | March 10, 2019

The story of wild turkeys in Georgia has all the elements of a novel. Like all good plots, our wild turkey story includes the obligatory tragedy, a fall. Dark days.

While some hunters would say it’s getting too dark for comfort in their turkey woods right now, the true dark days were during the last century when there weren’t any birds, like almost none.

As in any good story, this one has a comeback. Around 1950, Game & Fish folks made their first effort to restock turkeys, catching some birds from McDuffie County and moving them to Berry College. Catching turkeys was tough. So for about 15 years the state tried raising turkeys in pens and releasing them. That didn’t work so well. Meanwhile, in the 1950s a Forest Service biologist in South Carolina, Duff Holbrook, was figuring out how to catch turkeys with a cannon net.

Wild turkey restocking efforts had its fulcrum, a pivot point.

In 1973, Georgia had an estimated 17,000 turkeys, but large swaths of the state still had no birds at all. That year Game & Fish began catching and moving birds. The last turkeys restocked in Georgia was in 1998 when a flock was released in Irwin County. Ironically, Georgia’s turkey population and the quality of hunting was about to peak. The ’90s were the glory years for Georgia turkey hunters. Then the quality began to decline. The past five years have been far cry from the glory years.

We know the number of poults—turkey babies—is way down. From averages of around four poults per hen, now we see average poult-per-hen counts closer to one.

Hunter satisfaction is down. Hunter numbers are down. Hen turkeys—for some reason or a combination of reasons—are now making 75 percent fewer baby turkeys.

Should that concern anyone?

We know it concerns turkey hunters because we hear from them often. They have theories that vary widely.

One of the better turkey hunters I know is convinced the turkey decline is caused by chicken litter being spread on pasture and farm land as fertilizer. Another calls me every April when the national forests and WMAs in middle Georgia go up in so much smoke that country kids with asthma have to stay inside. He’s convinced burning during the nesting season is the issue. Biologists across the Southeast are beginning to believe turkey season opens too soon and hunters are killing too many gobblers before they have a chance to breed the hens. South Carolina and Arkansas have already moved opening day back, and don’t be surprised if that’s coming for more southern states.

We can’t manage turkeys based on anecdotal evidence from one tract of land. But it’s fair to ask what has changed. If you have fewer turkeys than 15 years ago, what is different?

Are you killing more gobblers too early now than you did back in 1999? If you’ve never burned your property—winter or spring—can that even be a factor? If your tract is wooded and there’s no agriculture or pasture within miles, can chicken litter be a factor?

What has changed that could have caused a dramatic, alarming crash in the number of eggs hatching and poults surviving? What caused a widespread decline in wild turkeys and hunting quality across every southeastern state?

Is it a perfect storm of negative factors? Or is there one factor that could be addressed that could best reverse the downward trend?

My Morgan County property has more turkeys than ever, and there are some things we did different starting about five years ago. We hired a coyote trapper, and we got after the coons with dog-proof traps and the armadillos with live traps. Is that what got us from a turkey maybe spotted every month or so, to several big flocks we see most every day, and enough gobblers that on a spring morning the gobbling makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck?

The status of wild turkeys in Georgia should concern all of us. Whether you turkey hunt or not, it should concern you. If you care about hunting at all, if you care about conservation and how it’s funded and prioritized, if you care about game management, you should be concerned.

There’s too much money, too many experts, too many fundraising banquets, too much great land for wild turkeys not to flourish. Turkey hunting should be better than ever.

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