As any hunter will tell you wild turkeys are delicious. Unfortunately for game managers, we’re not the only species that believes that, though. At some stage of their lives wild turkeys are on the menu of a wide range of predators, from newly-hatched chicks that are eaten by ants and crows to adult birds that are targeted by bears and mountain lions. But which predatory species are responsible for the most losses.
That’s a tricky question simply because the answer likely varies by region, but research is shedding some new light on turkey predation. Mary Jo Casalena, wild turkey biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, recently shared the findings of her five-and-a-half year telemetry study on wild turkey hens. Over that period of time 41 hens were killed by predators, and while many may assume that coyotes were responsible for most hen deaths bobcats actually killed more hen turkeys than coyotes. Over the course of Casalena’s research project bobcats killed seven hens, earning them the title of the most prolific turkey predator in the region. Foxes, owls and hawks all accounted for three hen deaths, although three hens were killed by “unknown avian predators” which leads one to believe that hawks and owls are actually among the chief predators of turkeys, a fact which might surprise some people. Coyotes were responsible for two hen deaths, and a black bear killed one nesting hen during the study.
Research published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology focused on nest predation on the Edwards Plateau in Texas and found that Rio Grande turkeys had nests robbed by feral hogs, bobcats, armadillos, and ravens, but the primary threat to turkey nests was raccoons. In fact, the level of raccoon predation was so high that it was determined that these mammalian predators play a major role in brood rearing success in that area. The same is likely true in other parts of the country as well.
What can we learn from these results? As most turkey hunters know, predator control helps bolster turkey populations. But some species—like nest-robbing raccoons—are very hard to eradicate. Others, like hawks and owls, are protected. The key to the success of these birds, then, primarily hinges on habitat. High-quality nesting habitat and readily available roosting and feeding sites minimize exposure to predators and increase the odds that your birds will survive.