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Turkey Management FAQs

50 Years of Turkey Hunting in Missouri

Once abundant in Missouri, wild turkey numbers plummeted in the early 1900s and prompted the Missouri Department of Conservation to close the turkey-hunting season in 1938. MDC began wild turkey restoration efforts (using wild-trapped birds) in the early 1950s by trapping wild turkeys on Conservation Areas in southern Missouri and translocating them throughout the state. These efforts, which continued through the late 1970s, were so successful that MDC was able to offer its first modern spring turkey hunting season in 1960, as well as a fall archery season in 1975, and a fall firearms season in 1978.

Missouri has had 51 years of modern turkey hunting. While turkey numbers peaked in the 1980s and have since fallen to more sustainable levels, Missouri continues to be one of the best states in the nation for turkey hunting. The number of wild turkeys harvested annually in Missouri is among the highest of any state in the country.

After reaching its peak in the 1980s, Missouri’s wild turkey population currently fluctuates largely in response to spring weather conditions, which influence reproduction and recruitment. Poor (wet and/or cold) weather conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing periods over the past several years have been a factor in reduced wild turkey numbers in parts of the state. Drier, warmer spring weather in the future will be critical to increasing Missouri’s wild turkey population. In the meantime, turkey hunting may be a bit more challenging in parts of the state than it has been in the past.

Q. What impact do predators and disease have on wild turkey numbers?

A. Predation and disease are not the primary factors that have led to recent turkey declines, but are part of the long-term natural population balance.

  • Predation plays a natural role in the dynamics of wild turkey populations. Although a substantial number of turkeys and turkey nests are lost to predation, wild turkey hens have large clutch sizes and the ability to re-nest if their initial nests are disturbed. In addition, wild turkeys nest in areas of dense ground cover, which serves to protect their nests from potential predators. Although weather conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing periods often dictate the degree of predation’s impacts on turkeys, providing nesting and brood-rearing cover can help wild turkey reproductive efforts.
  • Predation pressures have always existed for wild turkeys and have led to the development of the characteristics that make these birds so challenging to hunt (e.g. keen eyesight and hearing, as well as extreme wariness). Attempts to reduce predator densities at large scales are extremely expensive and largely ineffective. Turkeys have a multitude of predators (e.g., coyotes, bobcats, foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, free-ranging dogs and cats, hawks, owls, and snakes); some of which cover large expansive areas. Therefore, it is very difficult to exert enough effort on a large enough scale to substantially impact predator densities. Time and money are better spent on improving wild turkey habitat, especially nesting and brood-rearing cover, than on trying to reduce predator populations.
  • Disease also plays a natural, but limited, role on turkey abundance. Like predation pressures, the impacts of disease have always existed in wild turkey populations. The impact of disease on wild turkey populations is generally minimal when compared to factors that affect reproduction and recruitment.
  • There have been an increased number of reported cases of avian pox in Missouri’s wild turkey population in recent years; however, this disease is not new to the state and has likely existed in the turkey population for quite some time. Avian pox is a common infectious, contagious viral disease that not only affects turkeys, but also a wide variety of birds. Avian pox probably occurs to some extent in much, if not all, of the range of the eastern subspecies of the wild turkey. There is no practical method of controlling the disease; outbreaks of avian pox are normal and there is no treatment for wild bird populations. The most common signs of the infection are wart-like growths or scabs on unfeathered areas such as the feet, legs, eyelids, margins of the beak, and in the mouth, crop, or upper respiratory tract. Clinical signs of the disease include emaciation and respiratory distress. Many turkeys that are infected with the disease, however, never develop severe clinical signs, and lesions caused by the virus often disappear within 3 months of infection. Mortality due to the disease is usually limited to those birds that exhibit severe clinical signs in which the lesions impair vision, breathing, and/or feeding. Birds exhibiting these symptoms become easy prey for predators and are often removed from the population before ever being observed by hunters. Mosquitoes are generally the primary vector in the transmission of this disease and annual prevalence of the virus appears to be influenced by precipitation patterns. With the wet weather observed in Missouri over the past several years, it is not surprising that the number of reported avian pox cases has increased. Avian pox is certainly not limited to Missouri and probably occurs to some extent in most of the range of the eastern subspecies. Control of the disease among wild turkey populations is not practical and although a wild turkey with avian pox lesions may be unsightly, there are no human health risks associated with handling or eating a properly cooked bird that is infected.

Q. What happened to the flocks of hundreds that were common decades ago?

A. As MDC reintroduced wild-trapped turkeys beginning in the 1950s, the birds found plenty of vacant suitable habitat. As a result, their numbers naturally expanded and peaked in the 1980s. Those peak numbers could not be sustained over time and the population has subsequently declined to more sustainable numbers over recent decades.

  • Nature balances itself. Booming population growth eventually leads to an increase in predation, disease, and habitat limitations. These natural factors limit population growth and reduce it over time to more sustainable levels.
  • We now have a turkey population that declines or increases primarily in response to spring weather conditions, which impact reproduction. A few consecutive years of drier, warmer spring weather is critical for the state’s turkey population to increase in number.

Q: Didn’t Missouri have almost a million wild turkeys at one point?

A: It is very difficult to determine an actual number of wild turkeys in the state. The “nearly 1 million” number has been used as an informal reference to a possible maximum number of wild turkeys during a summer after an extraordinarily good hatch that occurred during the peak years.

  • In the fall of 2010, MDC estimated the statewide turkey population to consist of approximately 500,000 birds.

Q: What is the Department doing to manage wild turkey numbers?

A: Using sound wildlife population science, citizen input and partnerships, MDC has a comprehensive approach to turkey management.

  • The state’s wild turkey management plan was developed by MDC scientists along with citizens who have a strong interest in the well-being of the state’s wild turkey population.
  • MDC uses scientific data that is collected in a number of ways to manage Missouri’s wild turkey population. The Department analyzes harvest data, which provides valuable information on the age-structure of harvested birds, as well as estimates of hunter success. MDC also uses information obtained from brood surveys and archery observation surveys, as well as information from spring and fall hunter surveys to guide wild turkey management efforts.
  • MDC also works with landowners throughout the state, along with the USDA Farm Bill programs, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and other organizations, to increase critical nesting and brood-rearing habitat, which helps to increase turkey numbers.

Q. What role do hunters and landowners play in shaping the Department’s wild turkey management efforts?

A. The opinions of hunters are very important to MDC!

  • As a citizen-led and citizen-driven Department, MDC seeks and receives public input on an annual basis. This includes sending surveys to 9,000-15,000 turkey hunters each year to get their opinions about a variety of topics including, but not limited to, gobbling activity during the season, level of satisfaction with regulations and the hunting experience, and opinions of regulations that the Department may be considering in the future.
  • Despite relatively challenging turkey seasons in recent years, hunter satisfaction with the turkey hunting experience in Missouri remains high. By monitoring not only harvest statistics, but also reproduction, and the opinions of turkey hunters, the Department gathers a wide range of data that are used to guide management decisions.
  • Because 93 percent of Missouri land is privately owned, landowners play a critical role in turkey habitat management.
  • Landowners can help the state’s wild turkey population by increasing nesting and brood-rearing habitat on their property. Our private lands conservationists can offer valuable assistance to landowners wishing to improve their property for wild turkeys and other wildlife species.
  • MDC field staff works with tens-of-thousands of landowners (at no cost to the landowner) to help manage their land for optimal wildlife habitat and hunting opportunity. Through interactions with landowners, our field staff also acquires valuable input regarding local wildlife populations.

Q. How do hunting regulations affect turkey numbers?

A. Hunting regulations have very little effect on overall year-to-year turkey population levels. Yearly fluctuations in abundance are driven primarily by reproduction and recruitment, which are impacted by weather and habitat quality. Wild turkey populations are dynamic in nature and have the potential to experience rapid increases or decreases. Adding restrictions to the spring or fall hunting seasons, such as a one-bird limit or a shorter season, would have little effect on the turkey population since hunters harvest such a small percentage of Missouri’s wild turkey population on an annual basis.

  • MDC has fine-tuned the timing of its spring turkey season to ensure that turkeys have ample time to breed prior to the start of the season. Following breeding, male turkeys can be harvested liberally with little impact on the turkey population. Nearly all (99 percent) of the spring harvest is comprised of males. The regular spring turkey season starts on the 3rd Monday in April, after a substantial portion of hens have been bred and are nesting. A 2-day youth season is also held prior to the regular season to encourage youth participation in turkey hunting. Although the youth season does occur before a portion of the hens has been bred, the impact on the turkey population is minimal since a very small proportion of the population is harvested during the 2-day season.
  • In addition to the current starting date of the spring season, which allows for ample breeding activity, the timing of the season is intended to coincide with the second peak of gobbling, which increases the likelihood that hunters will hear vocal turkeys.
  • Missouri’s fall turkey season has very little impact on the quality of the spring hunt or on population numbers. With a statewide turkey population that was estimated at approximately 500,000 turkeys in the early fall, hunters harvested just <6,000 turkeys during the 2010 fall firearms season. The total fall harvest in 2010 (including the archery harvest) was less than 2 percent of the statewide population.
  • The Department’s conservative goal is to keep the fall harvest from exceeding the spring harvest. Recent fall harvests have been well below this limit; the 2010 fall harvest was just 15 percent of the spring harvest. Restricting the spring or fall hunting seasons at this time would only limit hunter opportunity, while having little or no impact on the state’s turkey population. We will continue to monitor the state’s turkey population on an annual basis and will be ready to make regulatory changes if and when we feel that they would have a positive impact on the population.

Q. Will trapping and relocating be used again to increase turkey numbers?

A. Because of its high cost and limited potential for success now that wild turkey populations have been established throughout the state, trapping and relocating turkeys is not a focus of MDCs management efforts. Drier, warmer spring weather in the future is the key for the state’s turkey population to increase in number. Just as wild turkey populations can experience substantial declines during years of poor reproduction, they can also increase rapidly in response to years of high reproductive output.

  • The Department’s previous success at restoring wild turkeys throughout the state was based upon trapping turkeys from a managed Conservation Area where they were abundant and then translocating the birds to areas throughout the state where turkeys did not exist. Missouri now has sizeable turkey populations in most areas of the state that are able to repopulate suitable habitat given a few years of good hatches.

NOTE: Please contact Jason Isabelle in Resource Science for additional information on the topic at Jason.Isabelle@mdc.mo.gov or 573-882-9909 x3291.

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