Eastern Wild Turkey: The Hunt, The Decline, The Necessary Action
I used this tactic for years in various states and hunting locations. Rather than tromping around and bumping unresponsive birds, I sit in a known spot or good looking habitat and call periodically. In this case I knew the spot well because it was my family’s 30 acre farm of oak/hickory timber guarded by native grass fields on the east and west. I sat facing north, looking toward some scrub timber filled with cedar, locust, and hackberry. To the south were some riparian corridors buffering a small river flowing through the farm. This timber has a nice open understory. The kind of spot where you could picture a spring gobbler in full strut, pacing back and forth in the leaf litter. It was in this open area that I sat waiting for a response to my lonely calls.
It felt like my heart was pounding loud enough to spook the bird. I strained to see him, but he remained a ghost. We hadn’t called for a couple minutes and he hadn’t gobbled. Apparently, he was frustrated at the fact he couldn’t see the hen he was searching for because he belted out a gobble that nearly blew my hat off. The kind of gobble that is so close you can hear his chest rattle. Panic began to set in. “What if he just walks away? Should I try to raise up and shoot him over this brush?” These were the thoughts that raced through my mind for a fleeting second. Fortunately, years of experience took control, and I maintained my position, motionless. Then it happened, a tail fan began to appear to the left of the brush. He eased into sight, his bright red head capped with a white crown came out of strut to look for the hen. Just then a 3-inch load of #4 shot met its mark at 23 yards.
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The Eastern Turkey Decline
I’ve spent over 30 years hunting turkeys. I routinely hunt them in Kansas and Missouri but have also pursued them elsewhere. Unfortunately, hunts like this are becoming fewer and farther between. I’m not suggesting every hunt must end with tagging a bird to be considered a success. The value is in time spent outdoors, even when coming home empty handed. But too many trips afield without success can cripple hunter morale, recruitment, and even hunter retention. Hunter recruitment and retention has been a concern across the entire country for the past decade and continues to be at the forefront of conservation efforts. Turkey hunting is a big part of recruitment and retention because it’s a close second to deer hunting as the most popular hunt in the country.
Unfortunately, eastern wild turkey subspecies is struggling across the bulk of its range. From Kansas to Georgia the bird representing spring to millions of hunters has declined over the last decade, in some cases as much as 50%. Eastern turkeys are facing many issues, none more critical than poor habitat. In many places closed canopy forests dominate the landscape because they haven’t seen a chainsaw or fire in decades. Native grasslands continue to be replaced by non-native forage, often grazed down to a few inches in height. Urban sprawl continues to gobble (pun intended) up habitat. Farming practices are ever increasingly efficient, reducing weed growth and the important insects those weeds attract that provide turkey forage. For some of these influences we have little opportunity to effect change, but where there is potential for habitat improvement, we must significantly increase our efforts.
I consider the lack of brood habitat to be the most critical issue across most of the country. Unmanaged, closed canopy timber lacks herbaceous understory. This same timber historically contained fewer trees due to periodic fires that reduced tree density. The sunlight reached the forest floor where grasses and forbs dominated the ground flora. The seeds are still present but they lie dormant in the soil awaiting the rays of sunlight blocked by thick timber. Intentional efforts must be focused on thinning timber and utilizing prescribed fire. Turkeys need a diverse stand of forbs (flowering plants) to raise their broods. Forbs attract insects and other invertebrates on which turkey poults feast all summer. Height also matters. Turkeys prefer vegetation about thigh high, which allows the hen the ability to see danger approaching. Much of our open lands also no longer fulfill turkey’s needs, oftentimes either grazed too short or on the flip side, sit idle like Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields, and become too tall and rank to accommodate brood use.
The Necessary Action Needed
Not all hope is lost; there are some efforts underway. Many state conservation departments are recognizing the issue and trying to make changes. However, much of those efforts are on public land. The problem is over 90% of the land is privately owned in the eastern wild turkey’s range. The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) has started a right of way program to create quality brood habitat under power lines and across pipeline rights of way across millions of miles. Increased cost share exists for several state and federal programs to install native plantings, in particular pollinator plantings on private lands which contain a diversity of forbs of the ideal height for turkeys. Many other government programs exist that include turkey friendly practices.
What can you do to make a difference? If you own land, manage your timber in ways that create quality turkey habitat. Enroll the edges of crop fields into field border programs. Control non-native grasses where possible to encourage native grasses and forbs. If you don’t know how to do that, seek out advice from a state private lands biologist, USDA personnel, NWTF biologist, Quail Forever (QF) biologist, or anyone else who can line out projects that create the desired results. If you don’t have land to manage, offer to help a landowner who lets you hunt, burn or thin their timber. If you only hunt public land, support NWTF, QF, Ruffed Grouse Society or any other non-profit that helps create better habitat. We must increase our efforts, biologists, landowners, turkey hunters, all of us, if we want to continue to experience the glory of a spring morning listening to thunderous gobbles ring out as dawn breaks.