Many of the same wild turkey population issues we face today are consistent with conversations from years ago. Sometimes, we need to look back in order to move forward. Recent South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wild turkey research results reaffirmed data from this article, first published in the January/February 2010 issue of Turkey Country. This recent research led to shortened spring turkey season dates in South Carolina (Game Zones 1 and 2: April 1 to May 10; Game Zones 3 and 4: March 22 to April 30), and a limit of one bearded turkey the first 10 days of the season. A $5 fee will also be assessed to resident turkey tags; those funds will help pay for wild turkey research. Future research will continue to investigate how these regulation changes affect the state’s wild turkey population. In essence, not a lot has changed. — Eds.
Gobbling and nesting peak
In 1975, Vernon Bevill published a study from South Carolina. Bevill looked at a non-hunted area in the Piedmont and found that there was a gobbling peak around March 21 and a second peak of gobbling intensity between April 26 and April 30. Between these peaks, gobbling hit a low point between March 29 and April 6, with the lowest point coming April 2, the second day of the South Carolina spring season. Remember, this area was not hunted, so hunter interference had no bearing on gobbling intensity. Bevill also discovered that by April 28, 75% of the hens were nesting and not coming to the gobblers. That means that three-quarters of hens were out of action and out of harm’s way.
In the late 1980s, two North Carolina studies, one in the mountains and another in the coastal plain, documented turkey nesting. In both studies, 75% of hens were nesting between April 20 and May 8.
In 2005, biologists from Virginia and West Virginia, led by Darroch Whitaker, examined 58 studies from 34 states and provinces and discovered that all but one state (Connecticut) opened their season earlier than the mean incubation date (MID). The MID is when more than 50% of hens are sitting on their nests. On average, 74% of the remaining 25 jurisdictions opened their hunting seasons 28 days prior to the MID, and three (Florida, South Carolina and Texas) opened their seasons more than 40 days prior to the MID.
What does it mean?
As the days grow warmer in the spring, gobbling intensity increases. As the gobbling increases, the fighting starts, and the winter flocks break up. The hens start to respond to the gobblers, roost with them, and at daylight, the tom gobbles a couple of times and starts to strut for the hens. The decreases in gobbling and increases in strutting and attendance to the hens continue until the hens incubate their eggs.
When the hens start incubating, they stop coming to the gobblers, then the gobbling intensity increases to the highest point of the year. This is when the gobbler is most susceptible to calling. It’s an exciting time to hunt. It’s also a time when hens are less visible.
Why should you care?
As wild turkey populations have increased, more people are in the woods to hunt and listen to them gobble. Many inexperienced hunters who scout in the weeks leading up to opening day hear a great intensity of gobbling. Then they hunt opening week, hear few gobbles and complain that the gobbling is over.
Barbershop talk leads to discussions with commissioners and politicians. Pretty soon, someone has proposed an earlier season to capture the first peak of gobbling. Extending the turkey season earlier is a misguided idea that will not improve turkey hunting. It will, in fact, make things worse for turkeys and hunters.
Dead hens lay no eggs
We know from research that hunters kill hens illegally and accidentally during the legal spring gobbler season. We also know that many hens are killed the first week of the season. We know that hens that are walking around with gobblers instead of nesting are more likely to be killed. We know that if as few as 10% of hens are killed, it can depress a population and put it into a state of decline. And as legendary turkey biologist Wayne Bailey once said, “Dead hens lay no eggs.”
Know what you want
Dedicated turkey hunters want healthy wild turkey populations they can hunt this year and far into the future. They want many hens fledging many poults. Knowing the facts, hunters should endorse later spring seasons and support biologists and state wildlife agencies when they show the need to hold off hunting until most hens are nesting — not just laying eggs, but tending nests and out of harm’s way. Thanks to the NWTF, state agency and university research, nesting data has been widely documented for more than 30 years.
Support common sense regulations that help both the hunting experience and protect the wild turkey. — James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., former NWTF chief conservation officer