Playing the role of Missouri's spring turkey season prognosticator isn't as easy as some might think. Trying to predict what might be takes a lot of research. To prognosticate means to predict according to present indications or signs. To accurately make such a forecast we must first take a look into the past to see what lies ahead.
Wild turkeys flourished in our state beyond comprehension prior to 1900, but overgrazing of livestock, market hunting, and loss of habitat caused the birds' numbers to drop so dramatically that turkey season was closed in 1938. However, a grand restoration effort was managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation in cooperation with landowners and hunters. By trapping wild turkeys in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and relocating them to other parts of the state, wild turkeys re-established their population and the MDC was able to reopen spring turkey hunting in 1960.
The restoration effort was so successful that wild turkey numbers peaked in the 1980s to numbers guesstimated around 1 million wild turkeys at one point! However, those peak years are a thing of the past. The reduced numbers of turkey in the Show Me State is partly because of basic ecological principles that suggest once a wildlife population peaks it will drop to numbers that are more sustainable over a long period of time. But Missouri's turkey population has seen serious declines over the past decade.
Aside from the natural order of population sustainability, other factors have played a key role in the decline of wild turkey numbers in Missouri in more recent years. Predation, disease and weather are factors affecting wild turkey populations too.
Right now our state's turkey flock is very susceptible to all of those factors and as long as we see poor spring production of poults, high levels of predators, and diseases such as avian pox, we can expect numbers to remain low or continue in decline.
Turkey numbers in Missouri are still among some of the best in the nation, according to John Burk, National Wild Turkey Federation regional biologist.
"We currently have an estimated 280,000 turkeys in Missouri," Burk said. "That number comes from the idea that we shoot about 15 percent of our turkey flock in the spring."
Although nearly 300,000 birds, that's a lot fewer than the half-million wild turkeys estimated to be here in 2008. Turkey numbers can increase, but for that to happen it would mean we would have to experience ideal weather conditions in the spring and summer so that nesting and brood rearing are above average to help build numbers back up. Unfortunately, we will probably never see those days that old-time turkey hunters like me experienced back in the 1970s and '80s.
Let's take a detailed look at what is effecting our turkey flock and where numbers are at their best.
The MDC enlists a large group of volunteers from around the state to record the number of wild turkeys they see in their daily travels and activities during the months of June, July and August. The most important things that survey is aimed at finding out is how many hens there are with broods, how many poults there are in each brood, and also how many hens without broods there are. This helps biologists in determining how successful the spring hatch was for a given year.
For the past four or five years, Missouri's poult recruitment has been terrible, mainly because of poor weather conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons. Unusually heavy rain and some freezing temperatures have kept poult numbers low throughout that period, thus having a negative effect on the overall population of turkeys in Missouri today. Wet weather can flood turkey nests and cold weather can give poults hypothermia, increasing mortality in the little turkeys significantly.
Just to give you an example of how poor weather conditions have been for poult production and brood rearing, consider April of 2010. The average rainfall statewide for the month of April was 7.45 inches making it the fifth wettest April in 117 years! That was bad news for turkeys and turkey hunters.
To further show how bad turkey production has been in the Show Me State, in 2007 Missouri's poult-to-hen ratio was 1:1, or one poult per hen. That is the second worst poult-to-hen ratio ever recorded in Missouri. However, you could realistically say that the 2007 poult-to-hen ratio was the worst of all time. The only year recorded that had a worse ratio was in 1960 when we experienced a .8 poult-to-hen count. However, we had so many fewer turkeys back then compared to today, that it's hard to compare the two ratios.
The bright light at the end of this dark tunnel is that the 2011 statewide poult-to-hen ratio in Missouri was 1.7:1. In other words, an average of 1.7 poults for every hen observed. That ratio is a whopping 42 percent higher than the previous statewide 5-year average in all regions except the Mississippi Lowlands. While statewide poult-to-hen ratios took a healthy increase, localized increases in the Northeast Region (+110 percent), and Lindley Breaks (+92 percent), were up dramatically.
"I think that the good turkey productivity Missouri experienced in 2011 was pivotal to our flock," Burk said. "Two of the previous five years were some of the lowest production numbers in history but the faucet (rain) turned off at just the right time this past spring, coupled with the 13-year periodic cicada hatch, which made for ideal brood-rearing conditions here."
This increase in productivity is fantastic news for Missouri hunters. Hunters can expect to see more jakes this spring, but even more important, the jakes of 2012 will be 2-year-old gobblers next year. Another couple of years of good productivity will really help increase turkey hunter success over the next several years and possibly bring it back to what we've been used to seeing when we were setting spring records just seven years ago.
SPRING TURKEY HARVEST
Missouri's regular season firearms spring turkey season harvest numbers have been on the decline for about the past decade or so. We reached a high-water mark in spring harvest in 2004 with a 56,882 bird total. The low-water mark in the last 10 years came this past spring with the three-week season yielding just 38,327 birds. That's quite a contrast in just over an eight-year period.
The reason for the decline can't be for lack of opportunity. The MDC has increased the season from two weeks to three weeks and lengthened the hunting hours by one hour each day with closing time now at 1 p.m.
Poor turkey production mentioned earlier is the primary reason harvest and population numbers are down statewide, period. Missouri has been hit by too many consecutive years of less-than-average nesting and brood-rearing success leaving fewer turkeys for hunters each year.
As mentioned previously, there are other factors that have had an impact on our turkey population and one of those is predators.
Missouri's turkey population has a lot of predators trying to make a quick meal out of the birds themselves or their eggs. Coyotes and bobcats are two of the biggest predators of the wild turkey in Missouri, both in size and in numbers of birds they kill. Foxes play a lesser role in killing turkeys or harming their nests. But then there are the nest raiders who eat the eggs before they have a chance to hatch — possums, skunks, and coons. And you can't leave out stray cats and dogs that roam the woods as well.
It's really difficult to try and access just how devastating these predators are on a wild turkey population but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it has to have an impact. There are more coyotes and bobcats in Missouri right now than ever before. I've called in coyotes, bobcats and foxes while turkey hunting and they weren't coming in just to see how I was doing. They were coming in for a quick meal of turkey breast and drumsticks.
The numbers of wild turkey predators are so high today because there is so much less trapping than there used to be. In my opinion, turkey hunters would be doing themselves a big favor if they started hunting or trapping these predators and furbearers during the off season to help reduce their numbers and alleviate some of the turkey predation on their property. However, wildlife biologist Burk disagrees with my theory that you can help your turkey flock by hunting/trapping predators. This is what he had to say.
"I'm a trapper, and a good one at that," Burk said. "I trap because I enjoy the sport of trapping and the 'fun-money' it brings me, but I don't trap to increase the turkey, quail, or pheasant numbers because I know my impact is minimal."
According to Burk, the fur market in Missouri crashed back in the 1980s and we've had some fantastic turkey population numbers well after the crash, so he doesn't see the correlation between predator trapping and hunting with strong turkey numbers.
"Predators have always been there and the turkeys have too," Burk said. "Predation mortality on turkeys is magnified by poor habitat and wet weather conditions and we've had lots of wet weather the past several years."
The wet weather makes turkeys much more vulnerable to predators that rely on their noses to find them. In other words, turkeys stink when they're wet. This especially makes the nests vulnerable for the raccoons, opossums and other critters looking for the eggs in the nest.
Disease is part of the natural order of things in all populations of animals, and wild turkeys are no exception. Diseases have always been around and have visited some mortality on turkeys, but there have been increased reports of avian pox in Missouri in recent years. Mortality from avian pox isn't certain but birds with severe cases usually die off. Most of the time birds with the disease are weakened and fall easy prey to predators. As hunters, we seldom see birds affected with the pox because they are victims of predation first.
"There was a blip on the radar screen concerning a fowl pox outbreak in Missouri," Burk said. "However, fowl pox is generally not a population depressor."
According to Burk, fowl pox is magnified during wet weather. During extended periods of rainy conditions, mosquitoes flourish and they are the major factor in spreading the disease.
"The only way pox becomes fatal is when the warts and lesions associated with the disease go internal and create airway blockages," Burk said. "But it's really hard to document the disease because sick birds hide and dead birds disappear pretty quickly."
Rest assured that the Missouri Department of Conservation is closely monitoring our flock for avian pox.
After weighing all factors available to us, Missouri turkey hunters should experience a very similar season compared to last year, with a slightly higher turkey harvest.
"Overall, I think hunters will experience a lot of action this spring," Burk said. "However, a lot of that gobbling will be from jakes."
While Burk believes the action will be better this spring, he is hoping for fewer turkeys killed this spring than there were last year.
"Like I said, hunters will be seeing a lot of jakes this spring and have opportunities to shoot them," Burk said. "I just hope that hunters don't take that opportunity and allow those birds to grow into 2-year-old gobblers for the 2013 season. If the majority of this spring's hunters pass on the jakes, the 2013 spring turkey season in Missouri will be phenomenal like we are used to here in Missouri."
Hunters haven't experience a lot of gobbling activity over the past couple of years because the majority of the toms that were out there were mature toms that don't do a lot of gobbling. There were very few numbers of 2-year-old birds, which provide most of the spring action. Hunters can expect to find it difficult to kill a longbeard this year too, because of the lack of 2-year-old toms and because we've hunted the older birds hard for the past two years.
"The dynamics of Missouri's turkey flock should be very interesting this spring," Burk said. "We should see good numbers of jake 'gangs' this spring from the good hatch we had last year."
Burk compared the jakes to teenage boys. He said that when there are just one or two of them alone they are pretty harmless, but when there are five or six of them together, they can be dangerous.
"These jakes will be doing a lot of gobbling this spring, more than normal," Burk said. "They will be competing for hens with adult gobblers and that too will cause the adult gobblers not to gobble as much as they normally would."
The hotspots in Missouri this spring will be the counties along the Missouri River corridor and the Ozarks. Good hatches and harvest trends point us to those regions for the best hunting in the Show Me State this spring.
Wherever you choose to hunt in Missouri, with a little common-sense hunting knowledge and some pre-season scouting, you should be able to fill at least one or maybe even both of your tags this spring. Remember to try and refrain from pulling the trigger on the jakes that come to your blind. Doing so will really help the spring turkey population for hunters next season.