Modern wild turkey hunting is as much a part of the Buckeye state as the Ohio State Fair and football, but it hasn’t always been this way. In 1904 the wild turkey was a thing of the past in Ohio until a turkey populations in the vast forested tracts throughout the southeastern region of the state took hold again. Wildlife biologists at the time transplanted wild birds from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Texas to Ohio in the 1950s. The first modern spring turkey season was instituted in 1966 and the rest is history.
Today wild turkeys are everywhere. Taking a big gobbler hasn’t gotten any easier, but even city-dwellers are within a reasonable drive of good turkey habitat and stand a decent chance of getting in a good shot or two during the spring season.
The Division of Wildlife does an excellent job of keeping its finger on the pulse of the turkey population. According to the most recent turkey population studies, turkeys were estimated to number about 200,000 birds statewide in 2008. The next year, reproductive success reached its lowest level in two decades and population levels plummeted. There has since been a gradual recovery, but the turkey still isn’t out of the woods, so to speak.
Historical spring harvest counts lend some interesting shades of gray to an otherwise popular assumption that bird populations really don’t change.
Over the 44-year period between the first spring turkey season in 1966 and 2010, successful hunters took well over 298,000 birds home for the pot. During that first spring season only 12 birds were taken statewide. After a steady increase in the number of wild turkeys taken every year, the spring of 2001 yielded the peak harvest of 26,156 birds. Hunting success dipped in 2004 to 16,118 birds but was back up to 23,421 birds in 2010.
Forest Research Wildlife Biologist Mike Reynolds is the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s turkey specialist. He has been doing his part in analyzing the DOW’s numbers to get an idea of where Buckeye hunters will stand this spring.
“Wild turkey nest success and brood survival have been below average in 2009, 2010, and probably again in 2011,” said Reynolds. “The reproductive index in 2010 was a little better than the record low in 2009 so I expect the 2010 spring turkey harvest will be similar or slightly better than in 2011.”
According to Reynolds, there should be a few more 2-year-olds around this spring. Even so, the 2012 spring harvest will be well below the record harvests in the early 2000s.
“What we need is some good weather and a cicada hatch to get things rolling again,” said Reynolds.
Flooding during the nesting season may be one of the biggest causes of poult fatalities. Predation by fox, skunks, coyotes, and other toothy critters account for a lot of lost young-of-the-year birds as well. Only 30 percent of young turkeys survive their first two weeks.
Other factors limiting wild turkey populations include habitat destruction in the form of housing and commercial development and less-than-helpful farming practices. The number of local permit-holders in the field makes a difference as well. And an exceptionally harsh winter can decimate a bird population for years.
Though it sounds like the odds are stacked against the wild turkey, a good gobbler is a tough bird and can live to 5 years old. Turkeys have learned to survive in suburbia, agricultural areas with a smattering of woodlots, and islands of heavily wooded tracts of turkey paradise within the city lights.
Wild turkeys are now found in all of Ohio’s 88 counties. In the spring season of 2010 the leading counties for bird harvests included Ashtabula with 1,030 birds harvested, Adams with 745, Tuscarawas at 664 birds, Galia with 640, and Guernsey yielding 635. These top five counties accounted for nearly 16 percent of the state’s overall harvest.
The harvest rate in Adams County increased 47 percent in 2010 over the previous spring. Galia County increased 46 percent. Even Cuyahoga County, certainly not a turkey hotspot, got in on the act with an increase from 2 turkeys in 2009 to 6 birds in 2010. Comparing the overall state harvest data in 2009 to the 2010 numbers, the turkey harvest increased in 67 counties, decreased in 18, and remained the same in 3 counties.
The statewide forecast provides an overview of how things look as a whole but doesn’t always say a lot about local conditions.