On a quiet morning in the north-central Big Woods a solitary spring gobbler hunter makes a quiet purrr with his mouth call. A 3-1/2 year-old gobbler is already within range, but for this hunter, like most spring gobbler hunters, the moments preceding the coup de grace are the most exciting part of the hunt.
Our hunter had positioned himself on a finger that formed one side of a small drainage basin. Calling from such a place allows calls to carry. This is most important as a means of locating gobblers. But this morning his owl hoots resulted in a single, short gobble not more than 100 yards away. That was hardly luck — the hunter had scouted before season to locate the general areas of turkeys, and knew where this gobbler was roosting.
More than a mile from the nearest road, he had the ridge to himself.
At a distance of less than 20 yards, the big gobbler crumpled the instant the 12 gauge shotgun roared.
Turkey density in the Big Woods has been declining. But this is meaningless to our successful hunter. In fact, our entire statewide wild turkey population has been on a downward trend since 2001. The population has been below the 1995 to current average since 2010.
Our Pennsylvania wild turkey population trend is similar to a downward trend across the range of eastern wild turkeys. Reasons cited for this include a natural leveling off of the population after the conclusion of the Trap and Transfer Program, normal annual fluctuations due to nest success and poult survival and varying environmental conditions. A sustainable population level has not even been determined.
But to put this decline into perspective we must recall those few years when the wild turkey population was peaking in Pennsylvania. So what we are looking at is a reasonably insignificant decline from fabulous to excellent. But a decline nonetheless.
"The spring forecast will be excellent," said Mary Jo Casalena, Turkey Biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Last year the spring gobbler harvest was down. Casalena attributed it to cold, wet weather and not much gobbling. Warm weather in early spring got the gobblers charged up, but the hens were not yet ready to breed because there was not enough sunlight. The length of day was not long enough.
"I'm hoping for an increase this spring," she said.
But it will not be due to any significant change in the wild turkey population.
"In general with this spring season, the 2015 summer sightings were about the same as in 2014," Casalena said. "That's telling us the harvest will be about the same as it was last year."
But since the gobbler harvest last spring was depressed due to bad weather conditions, the harvest should be better this spring if hunting conditions are better. The 2014 and 2015 hatches will be the major contributors to the spring gobbler harvest.
On a statewide basis the spring gobbler harvest has similar potential to last year, but individual wildlife management units will vary more substantially.
Wildlife Management Unit 1A had been one of the best, maybe the best, area in the state for wild turkey hunting. This probably is no longer the case, although the situation is not bad.
"Management unit 1A is not looking good right now. We still harvest over one bird per square mile, so it's still above the state average. But if you look at it compared to itself it's not the 1.8 birds we had in 2001."
The state average harvest is 0.8 to 1.0 gobblers per square mile.
Wildlife Management Unit 2F and Wildlife Management Unit 2G have long been popular areas for spring gobbler hunting. But here the wild turkey population has been declining. Hunters currently kill about 0.6 birds per square mile here.
Casalena said, "3C is one of the better management areas. We're at about 1.2 birds per square mile, so I'd say that's one of your hot spots."
She also put Wildlife Management Unit 4E in the same category. Both units have good harvest potential because they have good habitat. There habitat has decreased by only 5 percent. That loss might not seem to be good, but it is in comparison to the rest of Pennsylvania.
Do not anticipate any big changes from recent spring gobbler seasons in the remainder of the state, neither declines nor improvements. This is good news since Pennsylvania wild turkey hunting has been so good over the past few decades.
"We have to look at the whole picture," Casalena said. "The quality of the habitat has been declining, the nesting and brooding habitat.
"Fur prices have declined, so you have a high density of predators. It's easier for predators to find nests in poor habitat."
Habitat is critical to wildlife populations. Loss of habitat is the biggest threat to wildlife today, and is a critical variable in determining wild turkey populations in Pennsylvania.
"We've been noticing a declining trend on most of our management units. We've also been trying to do a lot of habitat work," Casalena said.
Wild turkey habitat in Pennsylvania has been both declining and degrading. Every time human development intrudes in wild turkey habitat the potential wild turkey population goes down. Almost as bad, a lot of our habitat is been declining in quality for a variety of reasons.
"We're on the verge of losing our oak population," Casalena said.
For decades white-tailed deer have been impeding regeneration of oak trees by over-browsing. There has been some turn-around in this trend since the deer population has been brought into better balance with the habitat and the biological community, but not enough.
Some progress has been made in oak regeneration by using prescribed burns. These are controlled fires that burn the detritus layer, the leaves and other plant debris that collects on a forest floor, but does not harm larger trees. Oak trees do not sprout well in thick detritus.
Many of our oak forests resulted from American Indian land management. Though not discussed much until recently, American Indians had agriculture that was in some ways far in advance of European agriculture at the same time. Many of the major food crops in the world today were borrowed from the Americas.
American Indians understood that fires improved fertility and game animal populations, as well as clearing land for crops. Far from being roving bands who were at the mercy of what nature provided, their population numbered in the millions, and they controlled the habitat to a great degree.
We have been doing the same thing in more recent times, but using different methods and with different goals. Results are trending against wild turkeys.
How big of a problem is predation?
Lower fur prices discourage trapping. This has a great deal to do with predation on wild turkeys; more predators, more predation mortality.
It is hard to convince turkey hunters that coyotes are not a serious threat to the wild turkey population. But consider that the the rapid rise in the Pennsylvania wild turkey population and the explosion of the Pennsylvania coyote population occurred at about the same time. Does this sound like they are at odds?
Coyotes are opportunists, and they will almost certainly partake of the odd nest of wild turkey eggs, or, very occasionally, an unwary adult wild turkey. However, there are other serious wild turkey predators. Raccoons, opossums, crows, bears, bobcats and other critters will rob wild turkey nests.
Perhaps fishers are a major predator to wild turkeys. Since being reintroduced through releases by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, these native animals have increased in numbers considerably at about the same time Pennsylvania's wild turkey population has been on the decline. The relationship between fishers and wild turkeys remains to be determined by wildlife biologists. Blaming fishers for declining wild turkey numbers may be alarmist thinking, however, just as in the case of coyotes.
"Fishers are mammal eaters," Casalena said. "They're mainly a predator of turkeys in the spring. We have hardly any predation in the winter.
"When turkeys start roosting in the trees it's the owls."
Great horned owls will kill adult wild turkeys. This may seem unlikely since great horned owls are not as large as adult wild turkeys. However, great horned owls are powerful predators.
On the other hand, there is little doubt human hunters are the most significant wild turkey predators. One demonstration of this is the 'Turkey Hen Harvest and Survival Rate Study' presented by Casalena. Research for the study was done from 2010 through 2014. More than 2,000 hen wild turkeys were leg banded. Another 288 were fitted with satellite transmitters. Fall hunting seasons varied by a week between two study areas. Then after two years the seasons were reversed.
The hen study showed declines in hen harvests the seasons following years when the fall wild turkey hunting season was increased by one week. It also showed that annual adult hen survival averaged 55 percent and varied from 34 percent to 71 percent, and that juvenile survival averaged 39 percent and varied from 19 percent to 56 percent. Changes due to differences in fall hunting season lengths are enough to significantly affect the wild turkey population.
"We've been shortening fall seasons in some management units. Ever since we started the three-day Thanksgiving season harvests have increased," Casalena said.
Length of fall hunting seasons is a major wild turkey management tool used by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Fall hunting seasons, when hens may be harvested, are lengthened or shortened according to population trends in the management units. Longer fall wild turkey hunting seasons are one good clue for hunters to find the better wild turkey hunting areas.
One of the more important things hunters should understand is the reasoning for the timing of spring gobbler hunting seasons.
"The most asked question I get is why don't we open the season earlier," casalena said. "It's purely biological. We're not trying to make it more difficult for hunters."
Pennsylvania wild turkey hunting is a special situation that requires special management decisions.
"We have more turkey hunters than almost any other state. They want it as easy as possible to harvest gobblers," Casalena said.
But an earlier start to spring gobbler hunting would work against wild turkey hunters in a more important way than easier hunting.
"We have to let turkeys breed before hunting," stressed Casalena.
"We have data from our hen turkey study," she said. "The reason we open the season the Saturday closest to May 1 is biology. That is around the median date of incubation. Once the hens are actually on the nests incubating they're much less prone to abandoning the nests."
Winter affects wild turkey nesting. Earlier or later breaks from winter affect wild turkey activity. Nutrition also has a lot to do with nesting success. Ideally wild turkeys come out of winter in good condition. But winter weather conditions are beyond human control.
There are very good reasons for wild turkey research. Without it we would not know for certain when hens start incubating on the nests. We would not have the data for making wise management decisions.
For more information about wild turkeys in Pennsylvania including recent research check the Pennsylvania Game Commission web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.