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Too Many Hens?


by James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D.
Chief Conservation Officer

It's a refrain frustrated gobbler hunters mutter at one time or another: "The gobblers are all henned-up. Every time I call, a hen gets in there and leads him away. We've just got too many hens!"

Well, maybe so. Then again, maybe not! Nothing is ever as simple as that. Before we all join the Choir of Too Many Hens, an understanding of wild turkey biology might help dispel some of the myths that are born of simplicity. A multitude of reasons require that careful consideration be given to any effort of controlling the numbers of hens in a given population.

We must acknowledge that in the above scenario the turkeys are doing what comes naturally to them. That is, mature hens naturally come to gobblers during spring, and they come for one explicit purpose – breeding.

Fortunately, we understand a lot more about that relationship now than our predecessors knew just a half-century ago. Research has shown that holding spring gobbler hunting seasons after the peak breeding period coincides with an increase in gobbling activity and does not lead to inadvertent illegal harvest of hens, which would adversely impact the turkey population. Once a gobbler has bred most of the mature hens in his local area, his gobbling activity increases as hens go off to incubate their eggs and stop coming to the gobblers.

Properly scheduled spring gobbler hunting seasons should take place during this period of increased gobbling — when incubation has begun — because most mature hens will have already been bred. Hunters who argue for earlier and earlier seasons are only hurting themselves. Later seasons also coincide with hens incubating, so hens are less likely to be killed inadvertently during the hunting season. Later seasons result in more hens surviving to produce more jakes and gobblers for following years.

But nature has a tendency to throw curveballs at our calendars. Weather can either accelerate or decelerate this spring mating ritual. When that happens, we tend to experience odd occurrences, such as a spring when we encounter a lot of hens with gobblers during hunting season because weather influenced the breeding cycle.

What it all boils down to is this: If you want a lot of gobblers in the woods, you want late hunting seasons and as many breeding hens as possible.

The White-tailed Deer Analogy

Oftentimes, the cry over too many hens leads hunters to ask why we shouldn't manage turkeys the same way we do white-tailed deer. It's a fair question.

When a whitetail population exceeds its habitat, we use doe hunting to regulate the population and manipulate the doe-to-buck ratio. The belief is that if it works for deer, we should be able to control hen-to-gobbler turkey ratios in much the same manner and with similar effect. While such a suggestion sounds reasonable, it's really an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Local habitat suffers anytime whitetails overpopulate. An uncontrolled deer population will quickly eat itself out of available forage. When this happens, deer die from malnutrition, disease and other related events. So it makes sense to hunt does as a means of pruning a local deer population to keep it within the limits of the habitat's carrying capacity. This also brings the benefit of increasing the percentage of bucks to the number of does in a given herd.

By contrast, wild turkeys feed mainly on acorns, waste grain, insects and grasses. Overuse of these resources by turkeys has not been shown to cause damage to their habitat. Therefore, taking hens out of a population does little to maintain or improve turkey habitat.

Predation is perhaps the greatest difference between population dynamics of deer and turkeys. At least in the East, the only predators that white-tailed deer have are coyotes, bobcats, hunters, Toyotas, Fords and Chevrolets. The lack of large predators such as wolves and mountain lions in the East allows deer populations to expand dramatically. This is not true for wild turkeys.

From egg to adult, the wild turkey has many predators. To the previous list we can add rat snakes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, domestic dogs, grey fox, red fox and more. Predators impact increases in turkey populations far more than they do in most white-tailed deer populations.

The Benefits Of Hunting

Hunters, too, take a great number of turkeys.

In Kentucky, research partially funded by the NWTF showed that under normal hunting situations, hunters typically take 60 percent of the gobblers and between 23 and 66 percent of the jakes from a turkey population each spring. With that kind of production and hunter kill, you need all the hens you can get to produce poults in the spring.

Great care must be taken in deciding whether to take some of a population's hens because it can have a direct impact on the following spring's population of jakes.

All of that is not to say that hunting hens should never be done. In fact, hunting hens in the fall is often justifiable in both a recreational and biological sense. Fall hunting is fast-paced and exciting, both of which create a great way to introduce youngsters to hunting and provide expanded hunting opportunities.

In locales with healthy, robust turkey populations, carefully controlled fall hunting that allows the taking of a few hens does not hurt the population because some of those turkeys would have died anyway. Wildlife managers need to keep a close watch on fall harvest rates, ensuring that annual human-caused mortality does not exceed 10 percent of the hen population. This includes not only whatever legal hunting seasons might be available but also any effects from illegal harvest or other human-caused depredation.

Fall hunting could be detrimental if there are too many hunters saturating the woods and the legal harvest is excessive.

Weather And Other Factors

We also need to consider the effects of weather events such as cold, wet springs or late-season snowfalls. Just two consecutive springs of weather-related poor nesting success could cause poult recruitment – the number of gobblers available to hunters in future years – to plummet. A third consecutive bad spring could spell disastrous results for an overall turkey population. How often have we witnessed a cold, wet spring that extends through hunting season?

If it isn't cold and raining, it's cold and windy. When these conditions extend through the time that poults are hatching, the result is cold, wet poults that tend to die at a higher than average rate due to exposure. There is also considerable evidence that suggests that wet hens are easier for predators to smell, and this may lead to higher nest predation. Without a robust number of hens, it could take several years for the populations to bounce back after such prolonged events.

In normal years, 50 percent of nests will fail, and 50 percent or more of the poults that hatch will die within the first six weeks of life. Out of 100 eggs in a given area, just 25 poults will survive beyond six weeks in a typical breeding season. Adverse effects from weather, higher than usual predation, habitat degradation or any number of other circumstances adds to these losses, and survival rates can easily plunge into the single digits.

Take the numbers one step further, and we find that half of the surviving poults will be jakes, the other half jennies. If we take out just two breeding hens out of 10 or 20 percent, the following year's breeding cycle will produce 20 percent fewer jakes, which results in 20 percent fewer gobblers the following year.

When you look at legal and illegal harvest of hens, predation, weather events and habitat quality, you just can't have too many hens in the spring woods. The next time the gobblers are all henned-up in the early season, thank your lucky stars for all of those hens and adjust your hunting to later in the morning or later in the season. There aren't too many hens; the hunting season may just be too early.

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