Wild Turkeys and Predators
From death comes life in the scheme of nature. It is eat or be eaten. This food web begins with microscopic plants, extends through various levels of animals, depending on the ecosystem, and results in a series of predator-prey relationships. A predator lives by killing and eating other species, which are called prey. Wild turkeys eat insects and other small animals, so they are predators, in a sense, but they become the prey of other birds, reptiles or mammals.
Predator-prey relationships have evolved over thousands of years. Predators are usually opportunistic feeders, looking for the easiest meal. Normally, they have target species they prefer, but will take other species if given the opportunity. Prey species must produce many more offspring than will survive, to offset the multitude of predators that use them for food.
Populations of a prey species maintain themselves because of the collective interests of the group, not by the survival of specific individuals. Individuals who are less suited to survive are cropped from the breeding population as well as those that are old, sick or diseased, assuring the population survives. Fit individuals maintain a healthy breeding population, which is the result of selection pressure by predators.
Where Do Turkeys Fit?
From the time an egg is laid, there is a predator looking for a ready-made omelet. Snakes of all descriptions, skunks, crows, ravens, opossums, raccoons, rodents, dogs and coyotes, to name a few, are on the lookout for a nest and an easy lunch. About half of the turkey nests make it to hatching.
Life is no easier for a turkey poult either. The above listed predators, along with hawks, owls, foxes, and other large predators like cougars and eagles in some parts of the country, will grab a young unsuspecting poult. The point to remember is that all of these predators will take turkey eggs, poults or, under the right circumstances, adults; but most of their diet consists of small birds, rodents and rabbits.
Role of Habitat
Habitat quality is also an important part of how a species survives pressure from predators. Early successional plant stages, or those that follow a habitat disturbance and need full sunlight, provide shelters for high numbers of small mammals, including rats and mice, which are the normal diet of many predators. This benefits wild turkeys, too.
The location of these habitats, and their plant diversity, can mean life or death to individual wild turkeys. Case in point: If the ground-level vegetation is sparse, the hen and poults become vulnerable to predators. On the other hand, if suitable habitat with good cover is available to the brood group, the poults have a better chance of living. This is the essence of what Aldo Leopold realized in the 1930s when he wrote that game management was "the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use." How we manage the plant communities, and where they are located, is critical to wildlife populations — and it doesn't matter whether you are dealing with songbirds or wild turkeys. Habitat quality and its distribution are more important than the number of predators.
Controlling predator populations has always been a controversial issue. There are situations where it may have a place, such as an area with a newly established population of a rare species. However, making an impact on a predator population is very expensive and labor intensive. Even after going to the trouble of removing hundreds of wild turkey predators from an area over several years, it is doubtful that you would see a significant increase in the numbers of wild turkeys. This is due in part to the movement of more predators from surrounding habitats into the area.
Predators are important components of the ecosystem and really benefit the prey species in the long run. Wild turkey numbers have increased dramatically over the last two decades, while at the same time predator populations have also increased. While certain predators may need to be controlled in specific instances, the long-term solution to maintaining wild turkey populations at huntable levels will be dependent not on the predator control, but on man's activities and good habitat management.