It’s no secret that turkey populations ebb and flow. Some years, the woods are brimming with gobblers. Others? The birds seem as scarce as a winning lottery ticket. Why is that? A number of factors play a role in turkey populations, but one is more important than all of them.
Predators eat lots of turkeys and turkey eggs, but are they a factor in long-term population trends? They can be. On study in Georgia found that more than a third of adult hens died at the fangs of a predator. The majority of those perished in the spring. Upwards of half of all nests are destroyed by predators, too.
Controlling egg eaters seems like an easy solution, but research has shown that everything from raccoons and skunks to crows and armadillos eat turkey eggs. Few people have the time or resources to undertake meaningful predator control efforts. There are simply too many predators on the landscape.
Severe winter weather can take a toll on turkey populations over a large area, but large winter-related population declines are usually rare. Healthy turkeys can go weeks without eating high-quality food. These days, they rarely have to. Waste grain can help birds survive even the toughest winters. When things are really tough, some turkeys will walk right into a barnyard and help themselves to livestock feed.
Weather has a greater impact on poult survival. Prolonged periods of cold rain in particular can be devastating to poults. So can extended drought in the spring. When poult survival is low, turkey populations in the following years can be depressed.
What about you? If you enjoy chasing turkeys in the spring or fall, you are contributing to the death of a bird every time you pull the trigger. Hunting does result in a short-term decline in adult birds, but with sound management, another generation of birds will take their place. Carefully-crafted seasons and bag limits ensure that hunting has little long-term impact on turkey populations. Both of those can be adjusted if turkey numbers decline from any number of factors.
All About Habitat
Nothing matters more to the survival of individual birds and long-term turkey population trends than habitat. Good habitat can help hens have better nest success and it can result in higher poult survival. Research has shown that hens in good nesting cover—large areas of early-successional habitat and other thick cover—have higher nest success and lower predation rates.
Good habitat also translates to more and better-quality food for young and adult birds alike. Without suitable brood habitat--areas with lots of bugs plus overhead cover from predators--poults have mortality rates of up to 90 percent.
If you want more turkeys, give them better habitat throughout their life cycle.