After a dramatic comeback fueled by restoration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, many southeastern states – including Georgia – have seen turkey numbers start to decline again.
Although changes in habitat are a likely factor, new studies are exploring other possibilities, including predation from owls, impacts from proscribed burning used in forestry management and even damage from racoons or feral hogs.
“It’s a perfect storm of possibilities,” said Kevin Lowrey, a biologist and turkey project coordinator for Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.
Georgia’s turkey population, estimated at just 17,000 in the 1970s, rose gradually to about 400,000 throughout the 1990s and fell back to about 300,000 from 2002 to 2007.
“Now we are estimating about 335,000,” he said.
Decline in wild turkey recruitment is not just a Georgia issue, he said.
“It’s more of a southeastern phenomenon. We are part of a wild turkey working group that’s been getting together over the last four or five years, mainly to try and see what’s going on.”
In Georgia, hunters typically harvest about 27,000 birds each spring – a number that has remained steady even when population estimates fluctuate.
Turkey reproduction success also tends to vary, due to weather and other factors.
“In the ’80s to early ’90s, there were 3.5 to four poults per hen – sometimes even 4.5 – during brood surveys,” Lowrey said. “Somewhere around 1996 that started to decline and 3 became more common, dropping to around 2.3 or 2.4 around 2002.”
In more recent years the number has fallen even more – to about 1.1 poult per hen statewide in 2007 and 2009.
Part of a new University of Georgia study under way at the 30,000-acre Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center in southwest Georgia involves the use of transmitters and other technology to follow and study wild birds.
Among the preliminary findings are that owls prey on turkeys more than previously thought; and raccoons are also frequent raiders of turkey nests.
The effect of coyotes, whose numbers have increased in recent years, remains unknown on turkeys, Lowrey said, although evidence is mounting that coyotes kill more whitetail fawns than previously thought.
Results of the south Georgia studies will be shared with other states in the working group in hopes of learning more about the factors that influence
“My guess is that they will not find a smoking gun,” he said. “It pretty much has to be a combination of things, but habitat is going to be a pretty big part of it.”
SAVANNAH RIVER SUNFISH: The S.C. Department of Natural Resources stocked nearly 16,000 shellcracker fingerlings at Fury’s Landing on the Savannah River near the Edgefield/McCormick county line on Nov. 20.
The fish were produced at the Cheraw Fish Hatchery. DNR had already stocked 88,000 fish in nearby locations on the Savannah and the final stocking will bring the total to around 104,000.
Anglers nicknamed the redear sunfish “shellcracker” because they have teeth located in the throat area of the fish that are used to crush the shells of some of the redear’s favorite prey items – mussels and snails. Redear are often stocked in small farm ponds in combination with bluegill and largemouth bass.
MISTLETOE CLOSURE: Mistletoe State Park will close for two days this week while deer management hunts are being conducted. On Tuesday and Wednesday, all park facilities will be closed to public use. The park will re-open at 7 a.m. on Thursday.
Hunters were chosen by lottery, and the hunts are used as a wildlife management tool rather than for recreation. The ecosystem within Mistletoe State Park has been damaged by the overabundance of deer, and by reducing the herd, the park is helping provide a healthier ecosystem for all species.