Here's a look at what Empire State turkey hunters can expect in 2009.
Wild turkeys are fascinating critters, powerful birds that can run 12 miles per hour, and fly from 40 to 55 miles per hour. The wild turkey's keen eyesight and wary nature make him a challenging adversary to hunt. And many hunters enjoy calling to prey that calls right back.
Wild turkeys were historically common in New York State, perhaps even predating human inhabitants here. Once the European settlers arrived, clearing land and hunting turkeys year 'round, turkey numbers dwindled. Wild turkeys disappeared from the state completely by the mid-1840s. It was not until farming became less common and farm fields grew back into brush and woodland around 1948 that one small band of wild turkeys deigned to cross back into western New York from Pennsylvania.
The return of suitable wild turkey habitat, and that one small band of wild turkeys from Pennsylvania, stirred interest in restoring the species statewide. In 1952, a state pheasant farm was converted to raise turkeys -- producing more than 3,000 birds to be released over the next eight years. Pen-raised birds weren't wild enough to survive predation and the weather, and failed to thrive.
Meanwhile, however, the Pennsylvania flock in southwestern New York had grown to a good-sized breeding population and was expanding successfully. By 1959, the New York State Conservation Department (the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's predecessor) had begun to trap these wild birds and release them in other regions of the state.
Since the first birds were trapped in Allegany State Park in 1959, about 1,400 wild turkeys have been relocated. Wild turkeys have now been successfully established in every part of the state, and have even been seen in New York City's Central Park!
The population has grown enough so that there are birds to share. New York State's wild turkeys have been relocated to help establish successful breeding populations in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and the Province of Ontario.
New York's first modern wild turkey season was held during the fall of 1959. The first spring season wasn't opened until 1968.
Regulations have changed many times since 1959. Currently, all 55 counties north of the Bronx-Westchester County line are open for spring and fall wild turkey hunting. Turkey numbers continue to rise; the number of birds harvested annually has increased dramatically over the past 15 years.
For the past 50 years, the DEC has concentrated on restoration of the wild turkey population. Now, with a well-established population, their focus is turning toward development of a long-range management plan for this popular game bird.
Data is collected annually to monitor wild turkey numbers, but it takes from three to five years' worth of data to identify population trends within the species. Data collection tools include the Turkey Hunter Pressure Survey, which provides estimates of the total harvest, the number of hunters and the number of days of hunting pressure in various regions of the state. Each year, about 12,000 randomly selected turkey permit holders are surveyed.
Additional information is gathered in a number of ways. Any hunter who takes a turkey is required to report the harvest to the DEC.
Since 1996, state biologists have also been conducting an August Sighting Survey by staff and volunteers. By August, poults are large enough to be spotted, but still small enough to provide a more accurate count of adults versus juveniles.
Since 1998, many bowhunters have volunteered to record wildlife, including turkeys, seen while in the field.
Most recently, the DEC has been working with wildlife departments in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a professor from Penn State, on a leg-banding program funded in part by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
"I coordinate for New York," said Mike Schiavone, a DEC wildlife biologist. "For the past four winters, birds have been captured in winter and fitted with leg bands. This allows us to look at harvest rates and survival rates, specifically of gobblers -- jakes and toms.
"Incidental to that, we get movement information," he added. "If a banded bird is killed by a hunter, we can see how far the birds have moved. These birds get together in large flocks in winter. In the spring, they break up. Young males, especially, will travel five or 10 miles, but a few go 20 or more miles."
Schiavone said that many adult banded birds stay relatively close to where they were banded, making the movements of birds that travel both surprising and interesting. He speculated that there might be some evolutionary benefit to young male turkeys moving away from relatives and that, at times, poor habitat might force some birds to search farther afield for food.
"Our main goals are to collect data on survival and harvest and how that varies in different parts of New York," Schiavone said. "We can look at this in relation to hunting, hunting pressure, landscape factors and habitat. The next question we'd like to ask is what the harvest potential is like in different parts of New York, and what the hen survival is like."
Once the leg-band study is complete, information is made available to the public through annual reports, press releases and the department's Web site.
Schiavone said there have been no major changes this year to New York's wild turkey hunting regulations.
"In spring, we have a special youth hunt for ages 12 to 15 on April 25 and 26, and then the regular spring season is from May 1 to May 31," he said. "Hunting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to noon. The bag limit is two bearded birds total, but only one bird may be taken per day. During the youth hunt, only one bearded bird can be taken, and then they can take a second bird during the regular season.
"We're fortunate enough to have turkeys throughout the state," Schiavone said, noting that there is no turkey hunting allowed south of the Bronx-Westchester County line. "Our 2008 production was slightly down from 2007 and slightly below the 10-year average. We had lots of rainfall, particularly in northern New York this past summer. Production was better in the southern part of the state, but still slightly below average."
Schiavone said that as long as winter was relatively mild, there should still be good numbers of wild turkeys going into spring.
it was a good hatch year, so there are good numbers of 2-year-old birds, and proportionally, better numbers of toms," he said. "New York is a really big place, and we are fortunate to have good numbers of birds throughout the state."
The top-producing counties during the 2008 spring turkey hunt were Chautauqua (2,016), Steuben (1,543), Cattaraugus (1,519), Erie (1,365) and Delaware (1,038). Schiavone recommended calling DEC regional offices for up-to-date wild turkey information.
"There are a couple of things that go into our assessment of where turkeys might be," said Karl Parker, senior wildlife biologist in DEC Region 4. "We look at summer brood production to get a general idea of how reproduction was this particular year, and we also look at how the fall harvest went. Finally, we look at the severity of the winter. All this gives us an idea of what to expect for overwintering males, and into summer, for reproductive stock."
Provided there was not a lot of winter mortality, Parker said, the turkey population is doing decently and he expects that to continue.
In this region, there are some areas that traditionally have the highest production of turkeys -- Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie counties. There's active agriculture and a good mix of habitat, with some forested areas as well as brushy cover.
There are well-established flocks on the east side of the river, particularly in Columbia County, where the winters are traditionally mild and there are orchards and agriculture.
"For the most part, state lands are forested," he continued. "We do have a mix of habitat on some of the larger ones due to timbering and mowing, but where we tend to have the best turkey populations, in my view at least, is where we have active agriculture and a good percentage of open land nearby."
Parker suggested that many private lands often meet the habitat criteria to draw big numbers of wild turkeys. Doing a little footwork and research leads to best picks for public lands, he said.
"Try to find public lands adjacent to active agriculture," Parker recommended. "Look at aerial photographs -- you can see row crops or tilled areas or silos. The state lands often have some spillover from the nearby private lands."
It may not be too difficult to gain landowner permission to hunt wild turkeys in some regions. Before the mid-1980s, turkey damage complaints were nearly unheard of. Now, the big birds are damaging crops, stored silage, vineyards and golf greens, not to mention the hazard they create near airport runways!
For public lands with decent turkey habitat in Region 4, head for Bear Spring Mountain WMA or Capital District WMA.
Bear Spring Mountain's 7,186 acres span the towns of Colchester and Walton. To reach the WMA from Walton, take state Route 206 south about three miles.
For area details, check DeLorme's New York Atlas and Gazetteer, map 49.
The 4,144-acre Capital District WMA is in the towns of Berlin and Stephentown. To reach the WMA from Sand Lake, take Route 42 for about five miles, and then turn right onto Miller Road. The state land is about one-half mile in.
For more details about the area, check DeLorme's NYAG, map 67.
"Assuming the winter was not excessive, this spring's hunt should be decent, and there should be plenty of birds," said Andy MacDuff, a DEC wildlife biologist in Region 6. "There's a lot of public land available in most counties. In Jefferson County, I would recommend the French Creek, Ashland Flats and Perch River WMAs."
French Creek WMA in Clayton covers 2,265 acres. To reach the WMA from Watertown, take Route 12 north through Depauville. Turn left onto Route 9 (St. Lawrence Corners Road). Drive about four miles, and then turn right and follow French Creek Road to the WMA.
To reach the 2,037-acre Ashland Flats WMA from Watertown, take Route 12F west to Route 12E. Drive west about nine miles. After crossing the Chaumont River, take the second right onto Millens Bay Road. The WMA is about five miles in.
Perch River WMA, the largest of the three, covers 7,862 acres. From Watertown, take Interstate Route 81 north to Exit 47. Take a left onto Route 12 north and drive about six miles to the WMA parking areas.
For more details on any of the three WMAs, check DeLorme's NYAG, map 91.
"Historically, we have the greatest number of birds in the state," said Emilio Rende, senior wildlife biologist in Region 9. "This was the sole source for providing stock for New York and the northeast up into Ontario. The whole state now has pretty good habitat for birds."
As in the other regions, production dropped a bit in 2008 here, as well.
"Production dropped a little bit over the past year, but we're still getting decent numbers of birds," Rende said. "There should be a good number of 2-year-old gobblers out there this spring.
"The Carlton Hill Multiple Use Area in Middlebury is a good place. So is Hanging Bog WMA in New Hudson. Another popular place nearby is Crab Hollow State Forest and Rush Creek State Forest."
Those two state forests are on either side of Hanging Bog, giving sportsmen about 7,000 acres for turkey hunting."
Carlton Hill MUA, three miles north of Warsaw, spans 2,580 acres. Check DeLorme's NYAG, map 56, for area details.
Hanging Bog WMA spans 4,571 acres in New Hudson. From Exit 28 (Cuba) off Route 17, follow Route 305 north to the New Hudson Road intersection, and then take the New Hudson Road north. The 1,404-acre Rush Creek State Forest is northeast of Hanging Bog. Crab Hollow State Forest's 1,154 acres run along the western side of the WMA. Check DeLorme's NYAG, map 42 for details about the region.
Rende also recommended Allegany State Park, Ninemile Creek State Forest, McCarty Hill State Forest, Golden Hill State Park, Canadaway Creek WMA and North Harmony State Forest.
Allegany State Park's 65,000 acres are open year 'round and offer a wide variety of terrain and wildlife habitats.
To reach the park from I-86/Route 17, take exits 19 or 20 for the Red House Area or Exit 18 for the Quaker Area. From Route 219, take I-86-Route 17 west, or from Bradford, Pennsylvania, take Route 219 to the Quaker Area entrance.
For details on the 65,000-acre Allegany State Park, check DeLorme's NYAG, map 41.
Golden Hills State Park, which brushes up against the stony shore of Lake Ontario, sits about four miles northeast of Barker. The park is open year 'round, with camping from mid-April through mid-
To reach the park from Route 269, take Route 18 or Route 104 to Lower Lake Road. Check DeLorme's NYAG, map 70, for area details.
The 2,080-acre Canadaway Creek WMA is in Arkwright, about four miles northeast of Cassadaga. The WMA borders Route 312 (Bard Road) and Route 629 (Center Road). Check DeLorme's NYAG, map 40, for area details.
The North Harmony State Forest, along with the Whalen State Forest, comprises the 3,886 acres of the North Harmony Management Unit in the towns of North Harmony and Harmony. This is a working forest managed for multiple uses, including the maintenance of wildlife habitats.
For general New York State turkey hunting information, call the DEC's Bureau of Wildlife at (518) 402-8883 or visit www.dec.ny.gov.