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Outdoors: Turkeys

Turkey numbers down, but optimism rising

Glenn Wheeler arranges Knight and Hale turkey decoys for a hunt. Photo by John N. Felsher
Glenn Wheeler arranges Knight and Hale turkey decoys for a hunt. Photo by John N. Felsher

Turkey hunters hope to spot more birds when the 2016 season begins across most of Alabama on March 15. During the past few years, turkey populations have dropped, but that trend might change.

“During the past five years, Alabama turkey numbers slightly declined from about 500,000 to 400,000 statewide, but that’s only an estimate,” says Steve Barnett, the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Wild Turkey Project Study Leader. “Turkey numbers can vary greatly from one site to the next.”

Turkeys thrive in hardwood bottomlands and diverse forests where they roost in trees. They also like fields and meadows where they can catch insects. Poults, or juvenile birds, rely heavily upon insects for food. Turkeys also need nesting cover.

“Most wildlife biologists feel that the turkey population is declining because of a lack of good nesting and brood-rearing habitat,” Barnett says. “The best turkey woods are those with open canopies so a lot of sunlight reaches the ground, encouraging ground-layer plants to grow. It can’t be so thick that poults can’t move through it, but enough to provide cover from predators. They need plants that harbor good insect populations because that’s what poults mostly eat.”

Increasing predator populations, such as bobcats, foxes and coyotes, also affect turkey populations. Birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, take many poults. In addition, increasing numbers of skunks, opossums and raccoons can hurt turkey populations. These animals raid nests and eat turkey eggs. Years ago, people used to trap these animals for fur, but few people hunt or trap these furbearers now.

To sustain a viable population, each turkey hen must produce two poults per year. Across Alabama, hens produced slightly more than two poults per year from 2010 to 2012. Production dropped to 1.43 poults in 2013, but rose slightly to 1.74 by 2015. Turkeys can live about 10 years, but hunters typically kill two-year-old birds. Therefore, hunter success largely depends upon how the breeding season went two years earlier.

“The good news, based upon turkey hunter surveys comparing 2014 to 2015, hunters saw a lot more jakes, or immature male turkeys, during the 2015 season,” Barnett says. “That should bode well for the upcoming season. Turkeys about two years old typically gobble the most. Like all animals, turkey populations go in cycles. I hope we are in the valley of that cycle and rebounding. We need some consecutive years of good brood rearing success.”

Working with Auburn University, the state began trapping turkeys on Oakmulgee, James D. Martin-Skyline and Barbour wildlife management areas in early 2015 to fit them with radio transmitters and leg bands. Data collected will provide biologists with information about turkey movements, reproduction and survival rates on the study areas. The research project will last several years.

Part of the Talladega National Forest, Oakmulgee WMA includes 44,500 acres in Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties southeast of Tuscaloosa. One of the most scenic public properties in Alabama, Oakmulgee primarily consists of longleaf pine forests on broad, sloping ridges interlaced with steams and floodplains. Hardwoods line several large creeks.

“Oakmulgee WMA had a really good turkey population for many years,” says Chris Cook, a state biologist from Northport. “It has a good mix of open areas, which are good bugging areas for poults, as well as good areas for seed-producing plants that turkeys need for food all year long.”

James D. Martin-Skyline WMA covers 60,732 acres of mountainous terrain along the Tennessee state line near Scottsboro in Jackson County. Skyline produced a 12-year high of 57 gobblers in 2015, up three from the previous year.

“Skyline WMA has a lot of rugged mountains with abundant hardwoods and some pines,” says Steve Bryant, an ADWFF wildlife biologist in Jacksonville. “It also has a reasonable percentage of area managed for early succession vegetation.”

Barbour WMA covers 28,214 acres of Barbour and Bullock counties near Clayton. The area consists of mixed upland pine forests with some hardwood drains, swamps, hills and hollows. Oak and hickory trees line several streams in the area.

“Historically, Barbour WMA has had high turkey harvests,” Barnett says. “Choccolocco also has a good turkey population. Hunters killed 80 turkeys on it in the 2015 spring season. Freedom Hills is another good area.”

Dating to 1940, Choccolocco WMA covers 56,838 acres of Cleburne County near Heflin. Very hilly, Choccolocco contains mostly restored longleaf pine forests with good ground cover. Freedom Hills WMA covers 31,868 acres of Colbert County near Cherokee. The area consists mostly of mature upland hardwoods and mixed pine and hardwood forests.

Turkey season runs through April 30 in most of the state. In other parts of Alabama, the season lasts from April 1-30 or April 22-26 depending upon the location. Consult outdooralabama.com for specific zone boundaries. In addition, season dates and rules on public areas may differ, so check the regulations carefully before hunting any area.


JOHN FELSHER 2014

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He co-hosts a weekly outdoors show that is syndicated to stations in Alabama. For more on the show, see www.gdomag.com. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com