Wild turkey populations across New England had a couple hard winters and springs in 2013 and 2014. Deep snow and long periods of severe cold took a toll on populations across much of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, particularly in northernmost reaches. Spring conditions both years were cold throughout the region, resulting in low brood production numbers and poult recruitment. Fortunately, late hatchings helped make up the loss.
Conditions last spring were not much better. Northern New England had another tough winter. Although spring nesting got off to a late start, better nesting conditions once it began resulted in increased brood numbers.
To the south, birds entered the winter of 2016 in good shape in most states, with overall numbers stable or on the rise, except in Rhode Island, where bird numbers were down.
Bird numbers are rebounding well in the Pine Tree State. Statewide the population has yet to reach the 60,000-bird estimate of a couple years ago, but things are improving.
"We started seeing broods much later than usual," said Kelsey Sullivan, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Bird Group. "But they were of good size, better than average. I expect the 2016 season to be middle of the road."
During the summer and fall of 2014 larger flocks were seen in central and southern regions, some numbering 40 birds and more. Flocks that size have not been common since the virus outbreak and hard winter of 2013, so they suggest that at least in some areas populations are rebounding.
Numbers are still down in northern regions, specifically WMDs 1-6. To ease hunting pressure during the first week of the season and help the population rebuild, the MDIFW has structured a split season based on hunter birth dates and reduced the spring limit to one bearded bird.
May 2 through 7 and May 16-21 have been designed Season A and during odd numbered years open to hunters with odd birth years. May 9-14 and May 23-28 are designated as Season B, and are open to hunters with even birth years.
During even-numbered years hunters with even birth years will be authorized to hunt Season A; hunters with odd bird years will be authorized to hunt Season B.
The spring season in WMD 8 will open May 2 and end June 4. It is open to all hunters, but with the reduced limit of one bearded bird.
Much of the turkey hunting in Maine is done on private land, which is open to hunting unless otherwise posted. Of course, obtaining landowner permission is always advisable.
Southern and central Maine are also home to a number of wildlife management areas frequented by wild turkeys. Some are better than others based on habitat conditions and food availability but most in York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Waldo, Knox, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties should be good bets. These counties typically produce the highest percentage of birds.
A list of WMAs with access information, boundary and topography descriptions will be found on the MDIFW web site at www.mefishandwildlife.com.
New Hampshire's Wild Turkey Biologist, Ted Walski, predicted a good spring turkey season in 2015, and that is just what happened. Although the 4,005 bearded birds taken is below the all-time high of 4,522 taken in 2013, the 2015 take is 2.4 percent higher than the 2013 harvest. All this points to the fact that the estimated statewide population of 40,000 is holding its own, despite hard winter conditions.
"We've probably reached our carrying capacity throughout the state," Walski said. "We might see numbers slightly higher given mild winter and dry spring conditions, but right now there are at least some turkeys in every town in the state."
According to recent surveys the statewide average is nearly five turkeys per square mile, but densities in some regions is significantly higher. This is particularly true in some units along the Connecticut River, home to some of the best remaining farms and field crop acreage in the state. WMU H1 has over seven birds per square mile, or nearly 3,000 total in the unit. Smaller in size, WMU H2 just to the south has fewer birds per square mile but includes very good habitat and has an estimated total of 3,610 birds.
In the southeast corner along the border with Maine, WMU L has the highest turkey density in the state, over 8.20 birds per square mile. WMU J2 has over 7.30 to the mile and WMU M nearly 6.40 per square mile.
In the south-central region along the border with Massachusetts WMU K has nearly 7.69 birds to the mile. Estimates in each of these units run from just over 4,000 birds to nearly 6,000 birds — respectable numbers.
About 80 percent of New Hampshire is privately owned, so it goes without saying that some of the best turkey hunting (and habitat) will be found on property not publicly owned. However, most state lands are open to hunting, including 75,000 acres of state parks and nearly 96,000 acres of state forests.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department also owns about 53 wildlife management areas in 100 tracts about the state. The department also holds conservation easements on an additional 19,000 acres of undeveloped land designated as wildlife resource conservation, and they allow hunting. Many of these areas are in the turkey rich central and southern portions of the state.
In the North Country, the state also has an easement on more than 146,000 acres in the Connecticut Lake headwaters, and there is also the 40,000-acre Nash Stream State Forest. This is mountainous, big woods hunting that contains fewer birds per square mile — but also fewer hunters.
Green Mountain hunters bagged 4,628 toms during the spring 2014 season. The number dropped to 4,460 in 2015, not including the Youth Hunt. The all-time high was in 2013 when spring hunters bagged over 6,000 birds.
With declining harvest figures of late it might appear Vermont's turkey population is in trouble, but the opposites is actually true. Even though the 2015 harvest is below the rolling three-year average, hunter participation remains high: More than 16,500 licenses were sold. At the same time, however, hunter success rates remained high at around 24 percent. With a little luck and a little hard hunting, you can get a bird here.
The spring brood productions in 2014 and 2015 were also "right around average," according to Amy Alfieri, Vermont's wild turkey project leader. "We still estimate the statewide population at between 45,000 and 60,000."
In recent years, counties along the middle and lower Connecticut River Valley, including Windsor, Orange, Windham and Caledonia counties, have been among top producers. These counties are home to some of the best farm and agricultural land in the state.
Other top counties include Rutland and Addison, two other good farming counties, along the New York border, and Franklin County in the northwest corner of the state.
Washington and Orleans counties have also been coming on strong, proving bird numbers are improving in the northcentral and northeast regions.
Turkey populations across southern New England have not been spared the harsh winter and spring conditions of late. During summer surveys the number of hens with poults seen in Massachusetts has been declining, dropping to 383 during the most recent counts. The number of poults per hen on the other hand has been increasing — slightly better than 3.4 in 2015, equal to that five years ago and the highest since 2007. That suggests that the remaining birds are having some success rebuilding their populations.
By most measures, the statewide population is holding its own at 30,000 to 35,000 turkeys, according to David Scarpitti, turkey project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
"But numbers vary greatly from area to area," the biologist pointed out.
With that in mind hunters should plan to scout as many locations as possible before the season opener.
And you won't be alone. The sale of spring turkey permits has remained above 21,000 since 2013. The first couple weeks will be hard hit, as always, but hunters might have a slight edge hitting the woods weekdays rather than Saturday.
According to Scarpitti, in recent years public lands in Worcester, Franklin, Berkshire, Hampshire and Plymouth counties have produced the most birds. Bristol, Hampden, Middlesex and Essex Counties should also do well.
For more information visit the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife at www.mass.gov/wildlife.
"Based on preliminary summer brood surveys, results indicate the turkey outlook for 2016 looks fair to good," said Michael Gregonis, the biologist in charge of Connecticut's wild turkey program. Again, as they have across much of New England, winter and spring conditions have been tough on Connecticut birds of late. Overall bird numbers in Connecticut have been slightly declining due to these factors — but there are still 30,000 to 35,000 birds out there.
Hunters bagged 1,232 bearded birds during the 2015 spring season, which in fact was a higher harvest than in 2014. Turkey hunting remains popular, with just under 10,000 licenses issued. The overall success rate is just under 10 percent. Last spring, 1,011 birds were taken on private property and 221 on state land. That ratio shouldn't change much this spring. Hunters are required to have written land landowner permission on official state forms to hunt private lands.
State land, however, offers plenty of opportunity and fewer hunters. State forests in the northeast region have been top producers of late. Places to pre-scout include Natchaug SF and Nipmuck SF both in Windham County, and Shenipsit SF and smaller Nye Holman SF, both in Tolland County.
In the northwest corner of the state, Tunis, People and Housatonic State forests are good bets and in the far west, Pootatuck SF in Fairfield County and Mattatuck SF in Litchfield County both hold bird populations.
Since 2001, the turkey population has been in decline, due largely to "poor brood production in annual summer brood surveys for many of the past 10 years, resulting in lower young per adult ratios and low recruitment," said Brian Tefft, Principal Wildlife Biologist, with the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife. The hard winter and cold, wet spring conditions the past couple years have not helped matters.
Today, the Rhode Island turkey population is estimated at 2,700 birds and populations are well below carrying capacity in many suitable habitats across the state. As a result, hunting harvest has declined by 51 percent since 2006, although the hunter success rate was a respectable 13 percent last year. In 2015, spring hunters took 114 birds, a one percent increase from 2014.
The top producing towns included Tiverton, Exeter, Coventry, South Kingston and West Greenwich, in the central and southern portion of the state. Hunters looking for public land should check out Arcadia WMA, Carolina WMA, Great Swamp WMA, Big River and Nicholas Farm WMA in these areas.
Other top towns include Glocester and Burrillville in the northwest, which is also home to Buck WMA, Black Hut WMA and George Washington WMA. North Smithfield and Scituate also posted good numbers.
For more information the RI DEEP web site at www.dem.ri.gov