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Wild Turkey Reproduction Holding Steady Across South Carolina

Annually since the early 1980s, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has conducted a Summer Turkey Survey to estimate reproduction and recruitment of wild turkeys in South Carolina. The survey involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public. This year over 300 observers recorded 1866 unique observations, seeing over 10,000 turkeys across the state in July and August. This was the best participation in the survey in ten years. More observations lead to higher quality data and better confidence in the information collected.

Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer. Therefore, the survey statistics document poults (young turkeys) that actually survived and entered the fall population.

Reproduction in turkeys has generally been low for the last twelve years. This year, average brood size of 3.4 poults remained good, but the Total Recruitment Ratio (TRR) was 1.5, a less than desirable figure. This low figure was driven by a high percentage of hens (55%) that had no poults at all by late summer. TRR has averaged 1.5 over the last 5 years, keep in mind that 2.0 is somewhat of a break even mark. In fact, when turkey populations were expanding during the 1980’s recruitment ratio averaged 3.5. Total Recruitment Ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. Although this observed measure of reproduction was poor in most of the state and definitely lower than we would like to see, the good news is the recruitment index has been stable over the past 5 years. Although we are not seeing an increase in these numbers and we are not where we need to be to see widespread increases in the turkey population in South Carolina, it is encouraging that things seem to have leveled off and the downward trajectory of the population has stalled the last several years.

Unlike deer, wild turkeys are much more susceptible to significant fluctuations in reproduction and recruitment. Lack of reproductive success is often associated with bad weather (cold and wet) during nesting and brood rearing season. However, there are a host of predators that take advantage of turkey nests and broods including: raccoons, opossums, skunks, armadillos, snakes, foxes, bobcats, and numerous avian predators. Coyotes which are not native but are now well established in the state can be added to the list of turkey predators. Additionally, feral hogs are expanding on the landscape and can be a significant nest predator. Turkeys naturally have high reproductive potential and are therefore able to maintain populations in spite of predation and other mortality factors.

What does reproduction last summer mean for the spring turkey hunter? Spring harvest trends have followed trends in reproduction for many years. For example, the harvest in 2015 was down significantly which was not a surprise because reproduction in 2013 was the lowest on record. The 2016 spring harvest showed a 10 percent increase in harvest over 2015. Just as the reduced harvest in 2015 was explained by the all-time low reproduction in 2013, the increase in harvest seen in 2016 was likely a result of slightly better reproduction in both 2014 and 2015 which led to an increase in turkey numbers in many parts of the state. The 2017 spring harvest (19,171) was up 14 percent over 2016. The association between changes in reproduction and its effects on harvest are rather remarkable in South Carolina’s turkey harvest and reproductive data sets. Based on this information and the 2016 summer recruitment numbers (TRR=1.8) being the highest since 2012, we can expect to see another increase in the harvest in the spring of 2018.

Finally, the gobbler to hen ratio during last summer’s survey was 0.58 which is average for the past 5 years. Low gobbler to hen ratios can affect the quality of hunting because hens are extremely available which affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters.

The bottom line is this year’s turkey harvest was 25 percent below the record level that we saw 15 years ago. However, that 2002 record was a one-time peak and the 2017 harvest estimate is dead on with the average gobbler harvest over the last 22 years. That fact combined with 5 years of stability in the summer survey data offers encouragement that the long term population trend is leveling off and moving toward static. It is possible that following restocking and restoration efforts and the tremendous population growth we experienced following those endeavors that we are now settling into a “new normal” of population levels, reproductive rates and harvest numbers. Fluctuations up and down are not unexpected given the reproductive strategy of turkeys and the multiple factors that influence their success and survival. This inherent instability is the reason that annual monitoring is critical for this species.

Anyone interested in participating in the annual Summer Turkey Survey is encouraged to sign-up. The survey period is July 1 – August 29 annually and those who participate typically spend a reasonable amount of time outdoors during that time period. Cooperators obviously must be able to identify wild turkeys and must be comfortable in telling the difference between hens, poults, and gobblers. If you would like to participate in the survey, contact Jay Cantrell at cantrellj@dnr.sc.gov. You will be added to the cooperator list and receive materials at the end of June annually. Those interested in the survey can also download instructions and survey forms at the following website:
http://www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/turkey/volunbroodsurvey.html