There is good and bad news for New York's spring turkey hunters as we head into the 2016 hunting season. The bad news: Turkey numbers continue to decline, down over 30 percent over the last 20 years, with harvest numbers dropping 26 percent from 2013 to 2014. While 2015 spring harvest numbers were not available at press time, New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) biologists did not expect an immediate or even slow turn-around to occur.
The good news: Turkeys are turkeys, and there are still plenty of them in New York. Spring hunters must target bearded turkeys, primarily gobblers, and this bodes well for hunters. Even silent toms will respond to judicious calling, and decoys only add to the allure of a well-planned set-up. There are turkeys in every corner of the state and the most experienced, best-equipped hunters should have no trouble finding and fooling their limit of two bearded birds. Fewer turkeys may mean hunters will spend more hours afield but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
According to the most recent DEC turkey harvest report, the estimated harvest for spring 2014 was 15,904 birds. This is a decrease of 26 percent from 2013, and is well below the 5- and 10-year average spring harvest (23,900 and 26,700 birds, respectively). Spring hunting participation was down about 13 percent during the same period, and the take-per-100 days' effort also decreased from 4.2 to 3.6, also below the 5- and 10-year average (4.0 and 4.3 birds/100 days' effort, respectively).
About 75 percent of the birds harvested in spring 2014 were adult toms compared to 62 percent in spring 2013 and 72 percent in spring 2012. The reduction in jake harvest may be an indication of poor production in summer 2013 and a severe winter in 2014.
Turkey populations are down significantly from the early to mid-2000s due to poor production four of the last six years, and severe winters in 2011 and 2014, according to the most recent DEC turkey harvest report.
The top five counties for estimated harvest were Chautauqua, Delaware, Otsego, Steuben, and Cattaraugus. However, biologists observed a decrease in harvest in most counties open to spring hunting from 2013 to 2014.
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, biologists estimate an average statewide population of 160,000 to 180,000 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.
Along with weather conditions during the spring and early summer nesting season, winter conditions (days below freezing, snow depth, etc.) can significantly impact wild turkey populations, particularly young birds (jakes and jennies).
The Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey is conducted from January through March and is used to monitor trends in relative abundance of turkeys statewide and within major regions of the state. This survey helps biologists assess the general health of the wild turkey population prior to the breeding season in the spring.
After reaching its peak around 2001, New York's wild turkey population declined gradually over the next decade, followed by an even more severe decline since 2009. There are several reasons for this, including a natural population contraction as turkey populations settled down to levels more in line with local environmental conditions, and other factors such as density dependence, poor production, changing habitats and predator communities.
The decline in turkey numbers may be more pronounced in some areas. Reasons for this include cold, wet spring weather, tough 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 development or vegetative succession, there will be correspondingly fewer turkeys.
In areas with a larger proportion of mature forest turkeys will persist, but at lower densities than areas with a mix of mature timber, early successional habitats and agriculture.
Predation can play a role in limiting turkey populations, but it is more likely that the problem is poor habitat quality that makes birds, their nests, and broods more vulnerable to predation. Turkeys have evolved behaviors and reproductive strategies to cope with predation, but in highly fragmented landscapes predators may be more efficient in finding turkeys and their nests.
This is particularly true for nest predators such as raccoons, skunks and opossums. In areas with poor brood habitat quality, such as low stem densities or poor overhead cover, turkeys and poults may be more vulnerable to predation.
Finally, there is one reason not to panic: turkey hens lay 10 to 12 eggs per year on average. Their reproductive strategy does not depend on every egg making it to adulthood, but when we finally get a mild, dry spring followed by a mild winter, the turkey population could rebound relatively quickly.
The DEC adopted new regulations to modify fall turkey hunting seasons across the state starting in fall 2015. The new fall seasons are two weeks long with a statewide season bag limit of one bird of either sex. Season dates vary regionally with the season in the Northern Zone running from Oct. 1-14, the Southern Zone running Oct. 17-30, and Suffolk County (Long Island) running from Nov. 21 through Dec. 4.
According to the DEC's recent report, the regulatory proposal to implement these changes was published on May 13, 2015, and during the 45-day public comment period the department received over 100 comments. Almost all of the comments received on the regulatory proposal expressed concern over the decline in wild turkey populations over the past 15 years and many were supportive of the DEC's efforts to modify the fall hunting season to accommodate changing turkey populations and environmental conditions.
The new regulations are part of a multi-year study to understand and respond to long-term declines in turkey populations and to ensure that harvest opportunities are sustainable. The new fall hunting season structure is based on the results of research conducted by DEC and its partners on ecological and social factors that influence turkey populations and management.
These factors included a study of how weather and landscape-scale habitat features interact with and influence the number of turkeys found in different parts of the state. Also, surveys of turkey hunters were conducted to identify what they value in terms of turkey populations, a high quality hunting experience and the trade-offs they are willing to make between hunting opportunity and turkey abundance.
In addition, field research continues where more than 450 hen turkeys are banded annually, some with satellite radios, so biologists can determine their survival and fall harvest rates.
Based on those studies, DEC biologists concluded that the best way to enhance turkey populations while maintaining some fall hunting opportunity was to offer a two-week season in all areas of the state, with a seasonal limit of one bird of either sex. Season dates are staggered among three broad regions, which will provide more avid hunters the chance to hunt turkeys for more than just two weeks. This represents a reduced season length in most of the state and a modest increase in season length for Long Island.
The new fall hunting season changes will be evaluated as part of a four-year research program. DEC staff will continue to band and track hens (started in 2015 and will continue in 2016) to help evaluate the effects of fall season changes on hen harvest and survival.
This information will be used along with information on turkey abundance, productivity, and hunter activity and harvest data collected annually, to determine future fall harvest opportunities that are sustainable based on current environmental conditions and trends in turkey populations.
In spring 2016 hunters will be allowed to take two bearded birds; however, hunters may only take one bird per day. Immediately after taking a turkey, hunters must fill out their carcass tag and attach it to the bird.
Spring turkey hunters no longer need to save and send in turkey legs. Hunters do need to take careful spur, beard, and weight measurements for reporting.
Spur measurements will also be required in 2016. Spurs should be measured from the tip of the spur to the base of the spur, where it emerges from the scaly part of the leg. Measure to the nearest 1/4 inch. Do not measure to the forward edge of the leg, only to the base of the spur.
Beards should be measured from the tip of the beard to the base, where it emerges from the skin. Butt the end of a ruler against the base of the beard and extend the beard along the body of the ruler. Measure to the nearest 1/4 inch.
Hunters are also asked to record the weight of the bird to the nearest pound.
TIMING THE HUNT
Most hunters know that the spring hunting season coincides with the breeding season for wild turkeys. There is a great deal of variation in the timing of breeding from southern latitudes (earlier breeding, nesting, and hatching in the southern U.S.) to northern latitudes (later breeding, nesting, and hatching in New York and the Northeast).
The goal for managing the spring hunting season is to give hunters the greatest amount of opportunity to harvest a bird while minimizing the risk to nesting hens, causing minimum disruption to breeding behavior and 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 by Virginia Tech looking at timing 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.
When managing the wild turkey, it is important that spring harvests be limited to males or "gobblers." Research has shown that, in many cases, hunters can remove a large portion (up to 30 percent) of the gobblers from a population and still have a healthy turkey population.
In New York, spring turkey hunters are allowed to take only bearded birds. The vast majority of bearded birds are males, although about 5 percent of bearded birds are hens.
THE ROLE OF HENS
The removal of hens by hunting, predation, disease or other means plays a much larger role in limiting turkey abundance, so biologists strive to minimize the loss of hens during the critical spring breeding, nesting and brood-rearing season.
As previously mentioned, some hens have beards and about 1 percent of the spring harvest is bearded hens; however, this represents less than 1 percent of the overall hen population, so the removal of these relatively few hens does not have a significant impact on turkey abundance.
One method the DEC uses to protect hens in the spring is to restrict shooting hours. The current shooting hours (from 1/2-hour before sunrise until noon) are intended to protect nesting hens because hens sitting on eggs in a nest tend to leave the nest to feed in the afternoon. If hunters are afield in the afternoon, the likelihood that a hen is killed, either accidentally (mistaken for a gobbler) or illegally may increase.
The killing of hens, either illegally or accidentally, can have serious impacts on turkey populations, and at high levels (for example, if 10 percent or more of adult hens are killed annually), it will reduce rates of population growth. It is not known if all-day spring hunting (sunrise to sundown) would result in many more hens being killed accidentally or illegally.
Other potential concerns related to all-day hunting include disturbing birds when they are going to the roost in the evening, the potential for people to shoot birds while they are roosted in trees at dusk, and disruption of traditional spring hunting activities such as "roosting" birds at dusk (locating birds at a distance by enticing them to gobble while on the roost).
NEW HARVEST REPORTING STRATEGY
The DEC has changed the way that seasonal turkey harvests are reported. In the past, the DEC only summarized the number of birds actually reported by hunters. Now, biologists report an estimated total turkey harvest based on surveys of approximately 12,000 turkey permit holders conducted after the close of the hunting season.
This results in a calculated harvest based on estimated reporting rates and provides a more accurate harvest estimate and a more realistic assessment of the status of New York's wild turkey populations.
Obviously, the DEC is working on its turkey management program and is making great strides in providing more opportunities for hunters while protecting the resource. While there won't be a mature tom behind every tree this spring there will be plenty of birds for hunters to pursue.
For additional information including harvest trends, graphics and other management details, log onto www.dec.ny.gov.