The New York Department of Environmental Conservation says over 100,000 turkey hunters participate in the spring hunting season and 65,000 hunters take to the field each fall in pursuit of this great game bird.
New York’s spring season begins in late April with a two-day youth turkey hunt and continues May 1-31 for all hunters. There is a two-bird bag limit (one bird per day). Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon.
The spring season is open in all of New York State north of the Bronx-Westchester county border and in Suffolk County (two-day youth hunt only). For the fall season, the state is divided into six “season zones” that range from one week long with a 1-bird bag limit (Suffolk County) to seven weeks long with a 2-bird bag limit (central and southeastern New York). Shooting hours during the fall season are from sunrise to sunset.
2013 Harvest Results
The estimated harvest for spring 2013 was 21,515 birds. This is an increase of 13 percent from 2012, but it is below the five- and 10-year average spring harvest (26,200 and 28,300 birds, respectively).
Spring hunting participation was similar to last year, but the take per 100 days effort increased from 3.6 to 4.2, close to the 10-year average (4.4 birds/100 days of effort). Turkey populations are down significantly from the early to mid-2000s due to several years with poor production from 2007-11, and a severe winter in 2011, but there were indications that brood production improved last year.
The top five counties for estimated spring harvest were Chautauqua (1,071), Delaware (817), Cattaraugus (744), Steuben (729) and Otsego (723). Overall, the DEC observed an increase in turkey harvest in just over 40 percent of the counties open to spring hunting, a decrease in almost one-third of the counties, and an essentially unchanged harvest from 2012 to 2013 in about 25 percent of New York’s counties.
The timing of the seasons, season lengths and bag limits are based on long-term biological data such as historic harvest numbers from the spring and fall seasons, surveys of poults and hens during the summer, surveys of flocks during the winter, estimates of habitat quantity and quality in various geographic areas, and research findings about survival and harvest rates.
DEC biologists recently conducted a four-year research project (2006-09) to measure survival and harvest rates of male turkeys under current regulations. In addition, they are currently studying the harvest potential of the various landscapes found in New York State in an effort to improve management of turkey populations and fall hunting.
According to a recent DEC report, the goal for managing the spring hunting season is to provide maximum hunting opportunities while minimizing the risk of overharvest. To accomplish this, the DEC opens the spring season near the median date for the onset of incubation (when hens are on nests). A recent study of turkey hunting seasons in the northeastern U.S. found that the timing of New York’s spring season was ideal based on data for breeding and nesting turkeys in our region.
Research has shown that hunters can remove up to 30 percent of gobblers and still have a healthy turkey population. The removal of hens by hunting, predation, disease, or other means plays a much larger role in limiting turkey abundance. Some hens have beards and about 1 percent of the spring harvest consists of bearded hens; however, this represents less than 1 percent of the overall hen population.
Fall Season Management
There are six season zones for fall turkey hunting in New York. Season length and bag limits are based on the varying turkey densities and hunting pressure in each zone. Fall hunting pressure (days effort per square mile) is 50 percent lower in central and eastern New York than in the western part of the state; thus, the turkey population in central and eastern portions of the state can support a longer season with a higher bag limit.
Adverse weather conditions, especially in “lake effect” areas, can also reduce turkey productivity or survival, making for lower harvest potential for turkey populations in these regions.
In all season zones the timing of the season is important and can dramatically impact the number of birds harvested by hunters. The highest proportion of turkeys killed occurs on opening day, and daily kill diminishes rapidly through the second week. DEC biologists try to open the fall season as late as possible to take advantage of the rapid growth of juvenile turkeys during.
Why No Late Season?
A late season hunt is not offered for several reasons. Deer season ends in mid-December in most years. At that time of year turkeys are under a lot of stress as they attempt to deal with the cold and snow of winter.
Just as cold, wet weather during the spring/early summer nesting season can have a big impact on nesting success and poult survival, winter weather can have a big impact on survival of turkeys, particularly jakes (juvenile males) and jennies (juvenile females) that hatched the previous summer. Biologists want to avoid having hunters pursuing birds during this critical period when large congregations of birds are drawn to fields to feed on waste grain.
There are year-to-year variations in turkey populations due to the effect of weather and other factors on productivity and survival. Rather than trying to continually change season length and bag limits based on changes in turkey population size, the DEC has chosen to offer seasons that can be sustained on a long-term basis and allow population changes to occur within set season length and bag limit parameters.
Monitoring Population Trends
The DEC does not produce annual estimates of turkey population size, but instead uses harvest data and other surveys as indices of population size and trends. Based on these data, state biologists estimate an average statewide population of 250,000 birds.
There are some problems with using harvest numbers as an index of abundance, but in general, harvest data do a fair job of showing trends in populations over time.
Overall, New York’s turkey numbers peaked in the late 1990s and have declined since that time. Since 2009 spring turkey harvests have dropped from some 35,000 to below 25,000 birds, with similar trends occurring in other states.
The DEC offers several reasons for the decline. Turkey populations boomed in New York during the 1980s and 90s as birds filled available habitats and moved into areas where they previously did not exist.
The decline that started around 2000 was likely, in part, a population contraction that has occurred as populations peaked and are now settling down to somewhat lower but relatively stable levels in balance with local environmental conditions. There is still much year-to-year variation in turkey numbers due to annual variation in production.
Declines in turkey numbers may also be more pronounced in some local areas. Reasons for this include cold wet spring weather, harsh winters and changes in habitat quantity and quality. In areas where open habitats such as agricultural fields, hayfields, old fields, thickets, and young forests have been lost due to vegetative succession, there are fewer turkeys.
In areas with a larger proportion of mature forestland turkeys will persist, but at lower densities than areas with a mix of mature timber, early successional habitat and agriculture.
Predation can play a role in limiting turkey populations as well, but it is more likely that the problem is poor habitat quality that makes birds, their nests and broods more vulnerable to predation.
In areas with poor brood habitat quality, such as low stem densities or poor overhead cover, turkeys and poults may be more vulnerable to avian predators such as hawks and owls. Larger predators, such as coyotes, may be impacting turkeys or other game birds on a small scale. The DEC recently initiated a study to look at coyote habitat use and diet preferences. The results of this research will lend some insight into the role of coyotes in limiting populations of game species.
The number of hunters during the spring has been stable in recent years but there has also been a decline in hunter participation during the fall turkey hunting season as well as a decline in the number of birds reported.
The decline is probably due to both a loss of hunters (with poor recruitment of new hunters) and a lack of interest in fall turkey hunting by existing hunters (or at least a preference for other types of hunting such as bowhunting for deer).
Hunters Can Help
The DEC is asking for hunters and others to monitor trends in turkey abundance and distribution. Interested New Yorkers may participate in the DEC’s Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey during the month of August or the Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey from December through March. The Summer Survey helps the DEC estimate productivity (number of poults per hen) and the Winter Survey helps monitor the size of the flock prior to the breeding season in the spring. Call (518) 402-8883.
Also, the DEC asks that all hunters report their spring and fall turkey harvests. The information helps the DEC accurately estimate harvests and make sound management decisions for this important game bird.
Hotspots for Spring 2015
As New York’s wild turkey biologists have indicated, habitat is the key to a successful spring season. The issue is not so much that great turkey habitat is being devoured by developers; it’s more that formerly excellent habitat (a mix of mature timber, early successional habitat and agriculture) is simply being allowed to grow into mature forest where turkey numbers will gradually be reduced.
As we look forward to the 2015 spring season, turkeys may be found anywhere in New York but it makes sense that hunters focus their near the top-producing counties such as Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Steuben, Otsego and Delaware counties. State forestlands, wildlife management areas, state parks or other public lands open to hunting may be found in all of these counties. For a complete listing of public hunting areas, visit here.
Spring Turkey Basics
The key to a successful spring turkey hunt is finding ways to get lusty longbeards to respond to hen calls and decoys. The process begins with “roosting” turkeys, which simply means cruising back roads and trails at sunset, pausing occasionally to use crow calls, gobbling calls or aggressive hen calls in an effort to get a roosted tom to respond. When birds are found, experienced hunters plan to be on high ground well before dawn, set up and ready to call about 100 yards away from and slightly above gobblers that were roosted the evening before.
Ideally, the roosted tom and his hens will fly down just before sunrise and head straight for the hunter’s carefully crafted decoy setup. Decoys should be 20 to 25 yards from the hunter between him and the target birds. Some hunters prefer to set up nearer the decoys and let another hunter do the calling from a secluded hiding place 25 to 50 yards farther away from the decoys.
The goal is to lure the strutting tom into range of the shooter without disturbing the tom’s hens. When this strategy works, it works well.
If the initial strategy fails (nothing is guaranteed when it comes to hunting spring turkeys), hunters switch to hit-and-run, ambush or long-term calling tactics.