The State Of The Flock

The State Of The Flock

Posting a record harest despite a reduction in hunter numbers from the previous season.

In the still darkness before dawn, a lone figure walks swiftly but silently through ankle-deep grass soaked with heavy dew. He’s destined for the heavy woods at the far end of the field, where wild turkeys travel between the deep hollows that bracket the ridge.

Upon arrival, the hunter notices the sky brightening in the east and surveys the woods around him. His eyes discern the silhouette of a big oak tree. It’s wide enough to support his back. It will offer a comfortable perch — as comfortable as one can expect for turkey hunting, at least. It will also shield his back in the event another hunter comes in from behind. Nobody else is supposed to be on the property, but the tree offers a little insurance against an unpleasant surprise.

As the hunter clears a spot to sit, an owl hoots. From a tree somewhere down in the hollow, a gobble thunders through the woods. The 2005 spring turkey season has begun.

Thousands of turkey hunters in all corners of the state have been looking forward to this day since the close of the 2004 season. Three weeks of exhausting, all-consuming bliss. Missouri is flush with turkeys, and if hunters do their part, they could equal or surpass the success they had last year.

Jeff Beringer, resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said that he was a little surprised at the size of the spring turkey harvest last year. A couple of below-average hatches might have hurt reproduction to a degree, he observed, but the overall abundance of birds prevented a dramatic drop in the statewide population.

“We have so many hens,” Beringer said. “Even if they bring off only one or two poults, that’s still a lot of turkeys. When we get these populations where the habitat is basically saturated with turkeys, they’re still bringing off a lot of poults.”

Even though hunters killed 60,744 turkeys last spring, the harvest probably had little effect on the statewide population. If it isn’t growing, it’s at least holding steady.

With extended cool temperatures and rain that lasted well into summer, nesting conditions weren’t great for turkeys in 2004. Beringer said that brood survey data collected in June 2004 indicated a poult-to-hen ratio of 1.6:1, or slightly less than 2 poults per hen. That ratio was similar to what was recorded in June 2003. That’s considerably lower than the average for the previous 10 years, which was 2.1 poults per hen. However, the brood survey data for August were a little more encouraging, Beringer noted.

REGIONAL OUTLOOK

In terms of turkey production, Missouri is divided into nine geographic regions. Turkey production was highest (3.7 poults per hen) in the Mississippi Lowlands region, which includes Stoddard, Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscott and Dunklin counties.

With 1.98 poults per hen, production was also good in the region known as the Lindley Breaks. This includes Howard, Boone, Callaway, Montgomery, Lincoln, Pike, Warren and St. Charles counties. The Missouri River forms the southern border of this region.

Next in line: the eastern Ozarks (1.87 poults per hen). This region including Crawford, Washington, Dent, Reynolds, Iron, Madison, Shannon, Carter, Oregon, Ripley, Wayne, St. Francis and Butler counties is known for its hardwood forests and rugged terrain.

Reproduction in the Union Breaks region was 1.63 poults/hen. This far-flung region comprises Cooper, Moniteau, Cole, Osage, Gasconade, Franklin, Jefferson, St. Genevieve, Perry, Cape Girardeau, St. Louis and Bollinger counties. It consists of rolling, hardwood-forested hills intersected by many small and medium-size streams and rivers. The Missouri River forms the northern border.

In the Ozark Border region, June 2004 brood surveys showed 1.58 poults per hen. This region made up of Newton, Christian, Webster, Dallas, Polk, Cedar, St. Clair, Benton, Hickory and Morgan counties consists of rolling hills defined by thick woods and pastures. Major drainages include the Big Sac and Little Sac rivers, as well as the Osage and Pomme de Terre rivers.

In the West Prairie region, brood survey data showed 1.51 poults per hen. Counties in this region are Greene, Lawrence, Dade, Jasper, Barton, Vernon, Bates, Cass, Henry, Jackson, Lafayette, Johnson, Pettis and Saline. This area also contains a versatile mixture of forest and pastureland. Major drainages include the Osage, Marais des Cygnes, Grand and Blackwater rivers.

In the Northwest region, June brood surveys showed 1.35 poults per hen. This region contains Atchison, Holt, Clay, Platte, Buchanan, Nodaway, Ray, Carroll, Clinton, Caldwell, Livingston, Andrew, DeKalb, Daviess, Grundy, Mercer, Harrison and Worth.

In 2004, hunters killed 60,744 turkeys. That includes 3,862 killed by youth hunters during the special, two-day youth-only season. Overall, the harvest increased by 3.9 percent over the previous year.

In the Ozarks West region, brood surveys show 1.27 poults per hen. This area composed of the counties of McDonald, Barry, Stone, Taney, Ozark, Howell, Douglas, Texas, Wright, Laclede, Pulaski, Phelps, Camden, Miller and Maries is defined by rugged, heavily forested terrain interspersed with pastures and numerous creeks and rivers.

Brood surveys in the Northeast region showed 1.26 poults per hen. This region encompasses Putnam, Schuyler, Scotland, Clark, Sullivan, Adair, Knox, Lewis, Linn, Macon, Shelby, Marion, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe, Ralls and Audrain counties.

CASUAL OBSERVATIONS

Casual observations pointed toward an abundance of young turkeys last summer. For example, my daily commute takes me 25 miles one way through two mid-Missouri counties. Until late summer, I saw two very large broods and one smaller brood almost daily in the same three fields. The biggest group contained about 15 poults and four hens. I also saw a good number of young birds throughout the summer in Cooper and Morgan counties, and also in Pettis and Johnson counties. I spent a week in Cedar County in August, and the area around Stockton Lake was awash in young birds.

And, of course, during the spring 2004 season, I saw a whole lot more hens than I saw gobblers. If those birds hatched two birds apiece, that’s a pretty good rate of appreciation. Interestingly, I also saw some very small turkeys that were li

ttle more than overgrown chicks on opening day of the spring ’04 season.

In other words, Missouri has plenty of turkeys, and their numbers don’t appear to be diminishing. “I think we have turkeys everywhere we have suitable habitat,” Beringer said.

Production appears to be leveling off somewhat as the number of birds approaches the carrying capacity of the habitat. Of course, some areas can always be improved. If landowners want to increase the number of turkeys on their land, they can get them simply by improving the habitat.

“If landowners are interested in increasing birds on their places, they need to focus on providing nesting habitat,” remarked Beringer. “One of the factors that limits turkey reproduction is the availability of good nesting habitat where turkeys can bring off a brood.”

For that, Beringer said, old fields with a mixture of brush and grass, work best. “You don’t want that switchgrass that’s neck-high,” he cautioned, “but a good stand of warm-season grass with a mix of forbs and brush. If you have a lot of woods, some brushy areas are going to be attractive to turkeys for nesting and brood rearing. It certainly wouldn’t hurt quail to have some of that edge habitat, either.”

One thing that certainly benefited the turkeys last year was the enormous amount of food that was available in late summer and early fall. The state had a bumper crop of grasshoppers in early September that lasted into October. This excellent source of protein should have had turkeys in superb physical condition to weather the rigors of winter. Also, an abundance of seeds from weeds and other plants provided ample food at the onset of winter.

Another perspective for viewing Missouri’s turkey hunting prospects comes from looking at harvest data over the last couple of seasons.

A few counties consistently yield the largest number of birds. That only happens in places with a lot of turkeys. Another interesting item is the fact that in four of our eight management regions, hunting pressure for the entire season was reported as light. In two regions, hunting pressure was light to moderate. In the other two regions, hunting pressure was moderate. Nowhere was it reported as heavy. We had another record harvest with mainly light to moderate pressure. Based on that, the prognosis for ’05 couldn’t look better.

2004 SEASON

In 2004, hunters killed 60,744 turkeys. That includes 3,862 killed by youth hunters during the special, two-day youth-only season. Overall, the harvest increased by 3.9 percent over the previous year.

Franklin County led the statewide harvest with 1,099 birds. Laclede County, which always seems to be in the top three, was runner up with 1,071 birds, followed by Howell County with 985.

Juvenile birds made up 20 percent of the overall harvest, so mature birds obviously took the brunt of the hunting pressure. Hunters encountered fewer jakes during the spring 2004 season, Beringer said, so there may be fewer 2-year old birds in the woods than usual in 2005.

Hunters killed 29,018 birds the first week of the season, compared to 28,991 during the first week of the 2003 season. Beringer characterized the first week as “slow,” noting that hunting conditions were difficult from beginning to end. “Gobblers were with hens during the early part of the season, and many hunters reported difficult hunting conditions during the third week, especially in South Missouri,” he said.

Regardless, 35 percent of Missouri’s turkey hunters bagged a bird last year — a decrease of 3 percent from 2003. But you have to put that in perspective. Hunters bought 124,533 spring turkey hunting permits in ’04, compared to 130,021 in 2003. That’s a decrease of 4.2 percent, which means fewer hunters pursued turkeys last year. A record harvest with fewer hunters: That makes last year’s record harvest appear even more impressive.

Here’s how each region fared in terms of harvest.

Northeast Region

In northeastern Missouri, hunters killed a total of 9,080 turkeys last spring. Of those, 7,714 were mature gobblers, and 1,366 were immature birds. Hunting pressure was light to moderate. Adair County was the top producer in the region with 886 birds. Macon County was next with 832, followed by Scotland County with 714.

Opening day harvest in this region was 1,466 birds. Of those, 1,279 were adult birds. Hunters killed 150 in Adair County, 128 in Macon County and 111 in Clark County.

Northwest Region

Hunters in the Northwest Region killed a total of 8,751 birds last spring. Of those, 7,430 were adult birds. Carroll County led this group with 682 birds, followed by Caldwell County with 669 birds and Harrison County with 642. Hunting pressure was moderate.

On opening day, hunters took 1,592 turkeys, of which 1,425 were adults. Caldwell County led the opening day tally with 165 birds, followed by Daviess County (132) and Ray County (114).

Kansas City Region

In the Kansas City region, hunters bagged a total of 7,479 turkeys, including 5,981 adult birds. Atop the list in this region was St. Clair County with 955 birds, followed by Benton County with 820 birds and Henry County with 735. Hunting pressure was light to moderate.

On opening day, hunting pressure was moderate, with hunters killing 1,139 adult turkeys and 234 jakes for a total of 1,373. St. Clair County was the opening day leader with 179 birds, followed by Benton County with 164 birds and Henry County with 149.

Central Region

Hunting pressure was moderate in the Central Region last season, with hunters bagging 8,407 turkeys. Of those, 6,817, or 82 percent, were adult birds. Osage County led the region with 770 birds, followed by Miller County with 769 birds and Maries County with 696 birds.

With moderate pressure, opening day produced 1,704 turkeys, including 1,414 adult birds, or 83 percent. Miller County topped the charts that day with 162 birds, followed by Montgomery County (153) and Maries County (148).

St. Louis Region

Despite light hunting pressure through the season, the St. Louis region contributed 4,125 turkeys to the statewide harvest. Of those, 3,112 (75 percent) were adult birds. Franklin County was way ahead of everyone else with 1,099 birds, followe

d by Jefferson County (723) and Lincoln County (549).

Pressure on opening day was light to moderate, and hunters bagged 722 birds. Of those, 578 (80 percent) were adults. Franklin County logged 213 birds, followed by Jefferson County (152) and Lincoln County (118).

Southeast Region

Exerting light pressure, hunters in the Southeast Region took 4,569 turkeys in 2004, of which 3,464 (76 percent) were adults. Perry County led that list with 618 birds, followed by St. Francois County (584) and St. Genevieve County (539).

On opening day, hunters exerted moderate pressure and bagged 866 turkeys, of which 668 (77 percent) were adults. Perry County contributed 152 birds to that total, followed by St. Francois County (122) and Cape Girardeau County (100).

Ozark Region

Hunting pressure was light in the Ozark Region as hunters took 6,784 turkeys. Howell County topped the bill with 985 birds, followed by Texas County (944) and Pulaski County (806).

On opening day, hunters bagged 1,050 birds. Howell County contributed 144, followed by Pulaski and Texas counties with 140 each, and Phelps County with 138.

Southwest Region

Hunters in the Southwest Region killed 6,779 birds last year. Laclede County led that group with 1,071 birds, followed by Cedar County (720) and Webster County (635).

Opening day produced 1,346 birds, led by Laclede County with 189 birds, Webster County (132) and Cedar County (131).

As you can see, the spring harvest was generously distributed throughout the state last year. Missouri’s turkey population is still very large, and hunting opportunities abound on both private and public land. This season could be the best ever!

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