GON 2019 Turkey Hunting Special

Hunter pressure and harvest limit are two new factors brought to the table when discussing fewer turkeys.

Donald Devereaux Jarrett | March 7, 2019

I’ve spent more than three decades in the Georgia turkey woods and have seen some highs and lows. In earlier years, I was only concerned with whether I’d get the good fortune to do close combat with a longbeard on a particular morning. However, these days I find myself more concerned about whether or not I’m going to hear a gobble or even if I’ll find any birds at all. 

For some hunters, they’ve been lucky to consistently keep good populations of turkeys. In fact, they may read this and just shake their heads about any discussions pertaining to decreasing turkey populations. However, there is a growing group of hunters who now believe that turkey numbers are declining. State wildlife agencies are believing it and starting to take action as research is now backing up the fact that our numbers have fallen. 

Accept it or not, it’s the real deal. 

I always look forward to seeing WRD’s annual “poults per hen” number.  When you look at long-term trends, it’s that number that give hunters an idea of how successful, or not, the hatch was from the previous spring and summer.

If you look at the data on page 28, you’ll see that the 2018 poults per hen number was 1.6, up from 2017 when just 1.1 poults per hen was recorded. Still, it’s a far cry from the excellent hatches Georgia saw from 1980-1990 (see page 30) when the poults per hen number ranged from 3.1 to 4.7.

Last spring’s harvest success rate dropped 12 percent from the 2017 season, attributed to the poor reproductive years since 2012. 

The silver lining in this season may be that you’ll see an uptick in jake populations. However, with poor hatches in recent years, especially in 2017, you’ll likely see fewer adults in the breeding population this turkey season.

I recently spent a few hours with Dr. Michael Chamberlain, professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. I point-blank asked him what he thought of the current state of Georgia’s turkey population. 

“Continuing to spiral downward,” he said. 

Dr. Chamberlain is the turkey guru, and his voice carries big-time weight. While his statement above wasn’t what I was hoping to hear, it did line up with what I expected. Although he said there isn’t any one thing to blame for the downward spiral we are experiencing, he does significantly identify some of the problems.

“It’s nothing new when I tell you that we have several contributing factors to our population problem. Snakes, raccoons, crows, coyotes, foxes and others contribute to nest failures and have certainly played a part in the decline,” he said. 

He also said that habitat loss for both nesting and brood-rearing areas is a major problem. But lately, there’s a different mind set that is making its way into the circles of turkey researchers and state wildlife agencies.

“Two things really stand out to me that I believe could have a positive  impact on our turkey population: managing  hunting  pressure and the timing and number of gobblers we take off a given property each year,” said Dr. Chamberlain. “Season dates might need to be adjusted, as often season dates and limits are based on tradition alone, rather than what scientific evidence dictates we should do.”

I can only speak for where I hunt, but Dr. Chamberlain’s comments regarding hunting pressure and limiting the number of turkeys killed per tract of land hit home. 

I have been a part of the management team on a private lease in Putnam County since 1998. It has had a consistent turkey population every year since its inception, despite the state’s report of low reproductive years. 

We manage the property as best we can, but we also manage the harvest. We limit hunter pressure and allow members to only shoot one bird during a season. I rode onto the property the other day and counted 12 longbeards. Managing habitat and harvest has worked very well for us during these lean years.

Years ago when turkey poult numbers began to drop, the standard answer seemed to be that the landscape had reached its carrying capacity. I remember that answer never really set very well with me, so I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Chamberlain about it.

“The acreage of the land may be the same as it was when it carried a lot of birds years ago, but if they are no longer there, there is a reason,” he said. “Whatever the reason, it no longer holds birds, and until conditions change, it likely won’t.”

So what reasons are most tangible to correct? I asked: “Timing of when we harvest gobblers and how many we take,” he said.

Many have argued through the years that there’s really no way to wipe a piece of property clean of gobblers.  However, after my meeting with Dr. Chamberlain, I would argue pretty strongly that you could easily hurt your gobbler population if restrictions aren’t put in place. For example, if you have 10 longbeards on your 1,000-acre piece of property, and you and your buddies kill six of them in a season, and then you have a poor hatch or brood rearing season or two, then you simply aren’t replacing what you’ve lost.

In addition to the notion that when we kill gobblers and how many we harvest could be contributing to declining turkey populations in the Southeast, there’s some gobbling study results that cuts against the grain of what we always thought that adds more information to the equation.

“We are using automated recording units (ARUs) to gather gobbling data,” said Dr. Chamberlain.

These units are used to record gobbles in chosen areas from a few weeks prior to the season to a few weeks after the season. They are placed in cages and mounted up in trees to minimize interference from humans. Then a microphone is attached and is placed higher in the tree to increase the distance at which the unit may detect gobbles.

“We have always been taught, as hunters, that turkeys gobble hard early in the season (or just before the season starts), and then it peaks again when the hen numbers decrease due to peak incubation,” said Dr. Chamberlain. “Our studies aren’t backing that up.

“We are finding that the vast majority of pre-season gobbling is related more to dominance establishment than to mating selection, as hens aren’t always receptive to mating when gobbling begins. We also noticed no significant increase in gobbling in relation to peak incubation.”

Colton Crawford, 8, of Americus, was hunting with his dad last March when he took this Marion County gobbler.

I’ve hunted my whole life believing that gobbling was directly linked to the breeding phase. I’ve thought that just before the peak breeding period the birds would gobble a little more to get those hens who were ready to breed to come to them. Then at peak breeding, there was less gobbling because they had hens. Then, when most of the hens began incubating, the longbeards really went to cranking since there were fewer available hens to breed, which would make for the best hunting of the season. Now we’re learning that an increased gobbling period during incubation may not occur.

In addition, studies are showing that many gobblers, especially the older and usually more dominant and aggressive birds, may be the ones getting shot earlier in the season. As a result, we are leaving less dominant and less aggressive birds for the most part to finish up the season. The birds that remain by season’s end are generally quieter and tougher to kill. 

“We are likely removing birds that gobble a lot and prompting others to shut their mouths,” said Dr. Chamberlain.

That fact is deeply compounded when you throw in the public-land factor. Cedar Creek WMA is one of the areas where these studies are being conducted. As a result, part of the testing will include a two-week delay in the area’s 2019 spring gobbler season. The delay was put in place to determine what effect hunting activity may have not only on the amount of gobbling but in the reproductive success of hens.

In spite of this new evidence that’s been brought to the table, Dr. Chamberlain does remind us that it’s a host of problems that has us left with fewer turkeys these days. I asked him to identify things we could do to alleviate the problem.

“Only what we can from a direct human standpoint,” he said. “We can only do so much as individuals to manage habitat, and we should certainly do what we can. Manage openings, control burns, planting etc. Predator control is another big issue, but it is one that you have to stay on top of. Managing habitat goes hand in hand with that in increasing turkey habitat by reducing predator habitat. Of course, trapping and hunting predators is another tool, as well.”

He added that we can’t forget that the weather, even though it’s totally out of human control, plays a big part in the outcome of our hatches and the success of the poults.

After speaking with Dr. Chamberlain, I caught up with WRD’s brand-new WRD Wild Turkey Project Coordinator Emily Rushton. She is the state’s first-ever turkey-only biologist. That means WRD pays her to focus only on turkeys.

“Part of my job as the state wild turkey project coordinator is to provide technical guidance to private landowners for sound turkey management. This is a newly created position that provides more resources dedicated entirely to turkey management, as the state has never had a full-time turkey biologist until now,” she said.

Emily said her hire will help the state better manage biological data collection, analyze research and provide technical assistance with the turkey population. She added that three biologists will be hired to develop and implement a technical assistance program for hunting clubs and landowners.

Take advantage of WRD’s new full-time turkey biologist if you need assistance. Call her at (706) 557-3264 or (678) 544-2335

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