Virginia Turkey Hunters Tag 17.9K Gobblers; But 2020 Looking Like a Tough Year
Updated: Feb 24
Here's a short video of a tom that came in totally silent in mid-April
VIRGINIA’S 2019 spring wild turkey harvest of 17,929 birds was up 11 percent over last year’s tally. While Bedford County again led the Commonwealth in terms of total turkeys taken with 533, Northern Neck counties are setting the pace when it comes to enjoying superb wild turkey populations compared to their geographic makeup.
Department of Game and Inland Fisheries turkey biologist Gary Norman tallies the number of turkeys hunters kill by county and then compares that to both the forested square miles and square miles of “suitable habitat” in each county. In announcing this season’s statistics, Norman said turkey densities are best reflected by the harvest per square mile of suitable habitat.
“We wanted a better index of habitat turkeys use rather than simply using the acreage of forested land by county,” Norman explained. “So, we contracted with Virginia Tech to develop a habitat model that includes some measure of open and shrub lands per county.
“But not all open lands are suitable for turkeys,” he added. “Typically, they just use the edges of open lands—so we include a buffer zone of open lands adjacent to forested lands as suitable lands. We did not include all of the area of large field, only the borders. Ditto for shrub lands; these areas can and do provide food and cover for nesting. So, these lands were included in our calculation of suitable habitats or lands.”
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By way of example, Norman noted Spotsylvania County is listed as having 288 square miles of forest land and 354 square miles of turkey habitat.
Statewide, the average number of turkeys killed is 0.5 bird per square mile of suitable habitat. The Northern Neck counties blow away the competition in this statistic. Northumberland leads the Commonwealth with 1.66 turkeys taken per square mile of good habitat, followed by Lancaster at 1.60. Richmond County comes in third at 1.52 while Westmoreland is 1.48. Bedford is assessed at 0.77. Most of the counties around Fredericksburg are just a little better than the state average, with the exception of Stafford and Spotsylvania, which are among the lowest in Virginia at 0.37 and 0.25, respectively. When DGIF groups counties by region and then average the results, it shows the Tidewater Region has the highest population densities (0.80 gobblers per square mile of suitable turkey habitat).
Next Year Iffy
Norman was encouraged by the uptick in hunter success, noting that Virginia has had a rough time getting young turkeys to
maturity over the last couple years. Excessively wet springs have been detrimental. This should have meant fewer 2- and 3-year old birds. As hunters know, those 2-year-old toms are often most eager to respond to calls and gobble their beaks off.
By my observation, some toms seem to be learning to not gobble or at least not as much. The one mature turkey (a 3-year-old) I shot this spring in Virginia crossed an open field for 250 yards at full strut but did not gobble once. Friends reported similar experiences. When I took my silent tom, another turkey was in the woods was gobbling incessantly. Now, you can wonder about the dynamic here. Maybe quiet boy was a subordinate bird and didn’t want to gobble because he feared a dominant bird gobbling nearby. Or maybe he was afraid of something else.
Hunters in areas with hefty coyote populations have reported a marked decline in turkey gobbling concurrent with the ramp-up of the coyote population. Perhaps some toms saw strutting, gobbling buddies get bull-rushed from behind by coyotes. Maybe turkeys adapt faster than we think. Or maybe they just learn to shut up when there is too much hunting pressure. Who knows?
Norman hopes Virginia had a good hatch this year. “We’ve experienced a long string of years with poor reproduction,” he said, “We’re overdue a good hatch like the one we experienced in 2011.” But, he added, “Unfortunately, production in 2018 was particularly low, so hunters will be facing a tough year in 2020.”
I’m guessing he’s correct. Many hunters this season told me they were seeing few jakes, or juvenile gobblers. In the good old days about a decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see street gangs of four or five jakes cruising the countryside.
More birds were harvested in counties east of the Blue Ridge (12,348, or 69 percent of the total) than west of the Blue Ridge Mountains (5,581, 31 percent). The eastern harvest increased 18 percent over 2018, while the western harvest dipped 2 percent. The biggest increases were in the North Piedmont and Tidewater Regions, at 25 and 23 percent, respectively. Bedford County hunters bagged the most birds, again, with 533, Franklin County with 466, and Southampton County with 441.
Norman said annual turkey harvest numbers are driven by factors such as the turkey population, weather and hunter participation rates. “Over the past 10 years, population trends, based on spring gobbler harvest, have increased in the North Mountain Region, North Piedmont and Tidewater Regions. Population trends in the South Piedmont and South Mountain have been stable. Statewide, the spring harvest data suggests the population has been stable since 2010. Norman said. “Stable isn’t necessarily bad when we’re at record levels.”
Virginia's neighbors in Maryland reported 4,002 wild turkeys taken last spring. That was the second-highest on record, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
See Virginia’s full statistics for 2019 at dgif.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019-spring-gobbler-harvest.pdf.