Turkey Biologist Says One Reason Exists for Half-Day Hunting in Spring Season: Hen Poaching
Note: This article also appeared in the author's Feb. 27, 2020 outdoors column in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star daily newspaper.
Virginia’s spring gobbler wild turkey hunting season begins April 11. For many hunters, it is the most heralded big game season. Having a gobbler respond to a call is one of those things a person has to experience in order to understand the emotion and excitement this seemingly simple act can summon.
I spoke with many people at the recently concluded (Feb. 12-16) annual National Wild Turkey Federation Convention and Sports Show in Nashville. Many questions related to, “Why does Virginia do this? or doesn’t do that?”
One person asked why Virginia only allowed turkey hunting until noon during the first three weeks of the season. Hunting all day would likely contribute to more hunters, including nonresidents, was the argument.
Upon returning home, I posed the question to Gary Norman, the respected, longtime turkey biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Norman is retiring March 31, following more than 39 years of service.
The answer was disheartening. Norman said illegal killing of hens prior to the female birds incubating nests was the main driver. Norman said a 5-year study of hen survival in Virginia and West Virginia found at least 6 percent of the hens alive in Virginia on any given April 1 were killed illegally in the spring. West Virginia’s rate was 3%. Transmitters from the radio-collared sample of birds were found in rivers, hidden under logs and in dumpsters.
Norman said some transmitters went “off the air” for undetermined reasons. If those were factored into the scenario, poaching rates could be as high as 9%. Norman said there was “good suspicion these were radios that were destroyed by poachers.”
West Virginia’s later spring opening date likely kept poaching rates lower. Virginia’s spring turkey season begins relatively early during the breeding season. Hens up and moving with gobblers are more likely to be killed. Virginia has two weeks of hen losses to poaching while West Virginia only had one, Norman said.
Hen poaching almost completely ends once incubation begins, Norman said.
“If we added all day hunting, I can’t say for certain what the illegal harvest rate would increase to but it would likely increase by a percentage point or two,” Norman said.
“I'd like to think that some of the illegal hen kill is accidental,” Norman said, citing an example of a now deceased well-known turkey researcher who accidentally killed a gobbler and a hen at the same time. In an honorable move, he reported himself. Still, the judge levied the maximum fine.
Maybe it is fear of getting a ticket that dissuades reporting. Maybe it is just plain lawlessness.
“I've heard too many hunters say that we need to thin out the hen population; they simply make it too hard to call gobblers,” Norman said. “Really, let's kill that goose that lays too many golden eggs. During times of reproduction, these hens are extremely valuable and we need to do our best to protect them.”
Recently completed research in multiple southeastern states showed only 21% of nest attempts by hens saw any poults (young turkeys) hatch. And just 7% of the nests produced a poult that survived to 28 days.
Norman said Virginia’s season used to begin at the end of April, but hunter pressure to move to an earlier date was intense. A later season protects hens. In a “white paper” prepared by the Wild Turkey Working Group and adopted by the Southeastern Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies’ board in late 2016, the recommendation was delaying spring turkey seasons until peak egg-laying, defined as the statistical mean date of initial nest initiation. “Our season starts two weeks before the peak of incubation,” Norman said. “A shift two weeks to the right would let us hunt safely all day, all season, but I doubt hunters would go for that.”
Fall Season Shrinks Cushion
Another huge variable is that Virginia has the longest fall turkey hunting season of any state with the wild turkey Eastern subspecies. Hens are legal quarry in the fall.
“We manage our hen population to the biological limit for hen annual survival. Other states that don't have a fall season have a lot bigger cushion of hen numbers going into the spring and they can ‘afford’ more illegal hen kills,” Norman said.
Research shows turkey populations are declining in many southeastern and midwestern states. Many states are examining the wisdom of early, all-day spring seasons. Some states have reduced bag limits.
Ongoing scientific research is looking at turkey nesting success, gobbling activity, hunting impacts and more as they relate to turkey population trends. Killing gobblers before they’ve had time to breed and before hens begin fulltime nest incubation is a key study topic.
Norman said Virginia’s rationale for the split half-day and all-day season is outlined in a brief “question and answer” in the turkey section of DGIF’s Hunting and Trapping Digest.
“Obviously, we've not educated the masses adequately, so one of my parting requests will be to leave that section in the digest, forever,” Norman said.
Change can be difficult. Wild turkey restoration is a conservation success story. But, like any wild natural resource, populations don’t remain static, especially in the face of increasing pressure.
In the September-October issue of Turkey Country magazine, Dr. James Earl Kennamer, former NWTF vice president of conservation, wrote of the problem related to killing hen turkeys. He wrote, “We know that if as few as 10% of the hens are killed, it can depress a population and put it into a state of decline…Knowing the facts, hunters should endorse later spring seasons and support biologists and state wildlife agencies when they show they need to hold off hunting until most hens are nesting…”
The 10% referenced here relates to hens taken in the fall. Add in illegal killing in the spring and it is easy to see where Virginia can have a problem.
The sad part, though, is it appears to be a “people problem.”
On a lighter note, here's my boy Jameson at 5 months old seeing his first wild turkey!