Pandemic Results in Big Increases in Wild Turkey Harvest Across Multiple States - Prompts Concern
Updated: Jun 18
Most turkey hunters hunt hard. When they achieve success, it's a sweet moment to be savored and celebrated. This year, many hunters were able to hunt doubly hard since they were either laid-off or working from home or otherwise able to spend more time in their local woods due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The term researchers and biologists like to use for increased hunting pressure is "hunter effort." Basically, it's how much time you spend hunting. Hunter effort in many southeastern states was extremely high in March and April and it has resulted in some stunningly high hunter success rates.
The National Wild Turkey Federation just concluded a well-produced six-week Facebook Live series they called "Cocktails and Conservation. Jason Lupardus, one of NWTF's senior biologists, moderated the sessions, which included Dr. Michael Chamberlain (University of Georgia) and Dr. Bret Collier (Louisiana State University), two of the nation's leading researchers into wild turkey behavior and biology. You can access the last, extremely informative session here or on the image. Note: Scroll to end of this blog for links to the other 5 "Spring Seclusion - Cocktails and Conservation" sessions. Just click on the images.
Chamberlain writes a Facebook blog he calls "Turkey Tuesday" and in early April he and Collier were assessing how spring turkey hunting during a time when many Americans were either off-work, out of school, or otherwise free to hit the woods every day, all day, might affect the total turkey kill. Their analysis related also to new understanding about how hens select gobblers for breeding and how nesting occurs, or doesn’t, in states where the brunt of the hunting time coincides with the peak of the breeding time.
Hunter effort, Chamberlain reported then, was up 47% in Georgia on state wildlife management areas, with similar pressure in Mississippi. At that time, Georgia’s statewide turkey kill was up 29% over 2019, and up 43% on public lands. In North Carolina, 2020 harvest was up 34.8% over the average from the previous three years. Tennessee’s statewide harvest was up by 50% at that point. This, “despite no appreciable increases in production within the past few years,” Chamberlain wrote.
The final results are in now for multiple states. Lupardus shared that Kentucky was up 7.5% from last year (29,502 to 31,720). Georgia finished 27% up, with public land success up a whopping 35%. Tennessee was up 28% with more than 40,000 turkeys killed. Indiana was up 5.5% and Missouri was up 6.9% with more than 41,000 birds reported. Both Indiana and Missouri noted increased resident hunting licenses, 9,600 more in Missouri. Alabama just instituted a new game check-in requirement, but officials there are, reportedly, cautious about the numbers, uncertain how many hunters are actually using the system. Even with, perhaps, sketchy reporting, Alabama was up 5%. Florida doesn't have estimated numbers yet. Florida doesn't require turkeys to be checked in, although the state does annually survey hunters.
In a paper Chamberlain and Collier wrote, they noted that wild turkeys are the only gamebird in the lower 48 states hunted primarily during their breeding season. One concern is that “excessive removal of males prior to and during breeding could negatively impact reproduction, as could greater disturbance to females who are laying and incubating.” A turkey hen, apparently, has a deliberate behavior pattern when selecting which gobbler it will breed with. Killing these dominant toms during the peak of nesting activity might be affecting nesting success since subordinate birds in the pecking order aren't automatically moved up in breeding status.
Interestingly, the pandemic may have reduced harvest pressures in western states since many hunters coming from other states had travel restrictions and many states tightened non-resident license availability.
Near Record Year in Virginia
In my home state of Virginia, despite a near total dearth of two-year-old toms on the landscape, hunters killed a remarkable 20,525 turkeys this past spring gobbler season, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
This is the second highest spring turkey kill on record in Virginia. The record spring came in 2015 when 20,580 birds were reported. The 2020 number is up 14.5% from last year.
Prior to the season, many biologists and avid turkey hunters wondered how the spring would go. Statewide poor hatches in both 2017 and 2018, especially 2018, resulted a lack of two-year-old gobblers, the ones that seem to gobble the most and often come running to the call. Many hunters reported hearing very little gobbling during the season. With older birds more experienced and wary, they are tougher to kill, so the conventional wisdom goes.
Conversely, last year saw a good turkey hatch, resulting in a bounty of young toms, referred to as “jakes.” The immature (and naïve in terms of understanding hunting pressure) birds are quick to respond to calls, check out decoys and like to travel in packs. They’re like spike-horned, yearling bucks, young and dumb – which is why they are often the first bird most novice hunters take.
So, did we kill too many turkeys in Virginia and elsewhere this year? Katie Martin, one of the state's wildlife biologists managing wild turkeys, said she thinks the impact of the higher harvest this year in Virginia, including the higher jake harvest (15.3% of total harvest), will be negligible in the long run if we have continued good reproduction. The high jake harvest will mean fewer two-year-olds next year -- obviously. Martin wonders if the hunter effort attributed to COVID-19 will continue or if it was a "one time blip in the line."
"Jake harvest normally averages around 10% of total harvest and this year was 15.3% of the total harvest which equaled an 80% increase from 2019," Martin said. "But part of that was to be expected with the high reproduction in 2019, there were many more jakes 'available- on the landscape versus two- or three-year-old birds since we had really poor reproduction in 2017 and 2018.
"So while this was a jump it’ll actually two or three more years of data to see if this has any impact. A single data point doesn’t make a trend so we don’t jump too much about single year harvest numbers. It’s the effect of those numbers over time that impacts populations," Martin said.
Martin shared that some of Virginia's surrounding states (North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania also saw increases. The Pennsylvania season is still ongoing and Martin said they are on average to below average so far, while West Virginia finished right about average. North Carolina and Maryland saw higher harvests and may have set records, but final numbers aren't posted yet.
The fact that we didn’t obliterate any existing records in Virginia seems, on the surface, a positive. But, then again, the fact that nearly an entire year-class of gobbler (those aforementioned two year olds) was missing from the landscape, means those older, dominant toms that do much of the breeding during prime nesting time may have been hit hard.
More Virginia Stats
The 2020 Youth and Apprentice weekend harvest increased 40% from 2019 for a total of 890 birds. Nearly 20% of the total number of birds killed were killed on the opening weekend of the main season. (See Table below) Hunters east of the Blue Ridge Mountains tagged 69% of the birds reported. Bearded hens constituted 0.4% of the totals, similar to prior year numbers.
Private land hunters killed 94.6%. Most of the 657 public land birds were killed on the nearly 1.8 million-acre George Washington-Jefferson National Forest, a total about 25% higher last year, but still showing the national forest has a long way to go in terms of regaining quality wildlife habitat.
Bedford County again led the state in total turkey kill by county, followed by Southampton and Franklin. Counties near Fredericksburg, where I first reported this story, had these numbers: Caroline, 197; King George, 141; Stafford, 74; Spotsylvania, 105; Culpeper, 215; Fauquier, 369; Essex, 186 and Westmoreland, 320. Other Northern Neck counties also generated sound turkey number with Richmond hunters logging 268 birds and
Northumberland registering 336 and just missing “Top 10” status.
As for me, I killed my usual two mature toms. I rarely take the three gobblers allowed on Virginia big game licenses. I could've tagged out on jakes in the first three days of the season but passed on all of them. A possible shot at a third tom was passed up because I judged he was at the far margin of certain killing range. A lot of turkey "misses" surely result in the birds being hit with a few pellets.
It's going to be interesting to see how this year's abnormal turkey seasons translate into bird populations in the years ahead - and any policy adjustments by wildlife managers and state agencies. Chamberlain, Collier and other researchers are learning more each year about this great bird's behavior and what influences and affects their ability to survive and thrive in our fields, forests and farms. Stay safe, hunt ethically, and honor our outdoor traditions.