Editorial-Opinion March 2024

Daryl Kirby | February 29, 2024

Are wild turkeys important?

Based on the amount of research going on right now, I’d say so. Based on the extravaganza and money raised and spent in Nashville last month at the NWTF national convention, I’d say turkeys are very important. And based on the phone calls and emails GON gets from concerned turkey hunters, I’d say turkeys are extremely important.

There aren’t as many wild turkeys as there used to be. Yet, some tracts of land have plenty of birds. What’s up?

The gold standard for monitoring how productive hen turkeys are at hatching and raising baby turkeys is called a “poult count.” It’s exactly what it sounds like—trusted eyes count how many poults they see with a hen. For decades, the average poult count statewide and for all the regions hovered around 4.0—four poults per hen. In the early 2000s, the poult counts rapidly began to decrease. Now, the average is more like 1.2, and in some regions there are years when it is below one. Less than one poult per hen. That’s an unsustainable population. Turkeys are a premier game animal, a bird that generates revenue, management and passion that’s second only to deer in this state—and the passion part could be argued… those who love turkeys really love turkeys.   

What changed? What’s the most likely cause for declining turkey numbers? Why can’t hens hatch and raise poults like they used to?

If you have turkeys, what is happening on your hunting property and the properties around you? There are areas of Georgia that have plenty of turkeys. Let’s put boots on the ground and find out. Something is happening on that landscape that allows for turkey hens to raise poults that become adult turkeys, including some that grow beards and spurs and rattle the woods in late March and April with thundering gobbles.

Maybe more importantly, what is not happening on that property that allows for a robust turkey population? What are those landowners and property managers not doing? Do they have a monoculture of widely spread pine trees that are burned every spring? Do they have large pastures fertilized with chicken litter? Do they spread corn on the ground every fall below all the deer stands, corn that might get moldy and be deadly to turkeys? Do they shoot far fewer mature gobblers than they have on their property?

There’s a secret sauce somewhere—a combination of positive factors and avoidance of negative factors that results in happy momma turkeys that have lots of kiddos.

Wild turkeys matter. Having a viable, huntable turkey population across the state should be the most important issue we’re talking about. We can’t just say “it’s lots of factors” and only address one—limiting the hunting opportunity dramatically so dominant gobblers can breed more hens. That may very well be the most important factor, and if so, we’ll see the proof very soon in the number of turkeys poults scurrying around the legs of hen turkeys. But what if we don’t see poult counts back up to where they were before the decline?

It’s time to dig in and move the needle. Now is the time for the paid professionals, conservation organizations, the biologists, and the most important component of all—the turkey hunters—to figure out what’s going on. What’s working? What’s not working?

Maybe the burn-for-federal-dollars management strategy isn’t best for turkeys? Then again, maybe it is. Isn’t that an answer easily obtained with all the personnel, resources and dollars between state and federal agencies and conservation organizations?

Show us, don’t tell us.

A retired biologist, someone I have  as much professional respect for as anyone I’ve dealt with in my 37 years at GON, said in a Facebook post several years ago, “Maybe we should start doing what’s best for turkeys, not what they can tolerate.” His comment was in reference to very large, very hot springtime burns that kill every hardwood in their path. “We are now on our 2nd generation of RCW (red-cockaded woodpecker) biologists. There have been and continue to be an awful lot of careers built around this woodpecker. Multiple use forest and wildlife management have been sacrificed on its altar.”

His words, not ours.

But huge spring burns and monoculture management can’t be the only issue. So let’s figure it out. The time is now. On this course, we won’t even have a turkey season in the near future. Imagine that.

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