The numbers don’t lie. They tell us where poult production was good, and where hunters can expect to fill their bags this season.
With the 2009 spring turkey season opening next month, what areas of the state might have the best hunting opportunities based upon the annual poult production surveys?General turkey biology
It is a given that turkey hunting is best in areas with good populations of turkeys. Plenty of toms generally equates to plenty of opportunities to hear birds and to set up on receptive gobblers.
In order to have a good turkey population, turkeys must first have a successful nesting season and good survival of hatched poults. Weather conditions, habitat quality and predation probably have the greatest impact on our turkey populations with regard to nesting and poult success.
It is a tough life for a ground-nesting bird in this state. A turkey does not construct a nest like most birds. It is basically a shallow depression on the ground. It takes about two weeks for a hen to lay a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs, usually one per day. The hen will cover the eggs when it leaves the nest. As more eggs are laid, the hen will begin incubation and spend more time on its nest.
Once the last egg is laid, continuous incubation begins. The incubation period lasts 26-28 days. The brood leaves the nest shortly after the poults have hatched, and survival of the fittest begins.
Turkey predators are numerous in this state, especially the egg-robbing and eating kind, including raccoons, skunks, opossums, crows and snakes. Of course, coyotes and foxes will readily dine on fresh eggs.
Have you ever watched a family of coons foraging through the woods from your deer stand? It’s somewhat like watching an organized deer drive. Not much is missed by these masked bandits.
Predators increase once the eggs hatch, and the poults begin moving around. Hawks, owls, bobcats and even cougars are always looking for an easy meal. Feral hogs can also be included in the predator list along with feral dogs and cats. With the decline in fur-trapping, the population densities of raccoons, opossums and skunks are high.
What does the research say about nesting success and poult survival? Nest success is generally low with half of the nests being destroyed before eggs hatch. Hens will renest, and this can help maintain turkey productivity. Studies have found nesting success of Eastern wild turkeys ranging from 38 to 83 percent.
It is much the same with poult survival. About half of all poults survive the first two weeks of life. Studies have found anywhere from 56 to 73 percent poult mortality during the first two weeks.
Poults begin to fly during their third week of life, and this increases survival.
According to Fred Kimmel, upland game biologist with LDWF, the nesting success on Sherburne WMA is low. A research study with LSU investigating nesting success on the WMA a few years ago found that hens would start a nest, but would not incubate, possibly due to disturbance factors. The study also found that good nesting habitat is limited on the WMA. Some hens would nest in the new spring growth of herbaceous plant species such as bedstraw that initially provided good cover, but as the daily temperatures increased, the bedstraw would die back, exposing the eggs to predation.
A current telemetry study with LSU is investigating raccoon activity and movement along with turkey nesting and activity to see if there is a problem with this predator and nesting success. Past telemetry and banding studies on Sherburne have found high survival of hens and gobblers, so adult mortality does not appear to be high due to predation.
Poult production survey
In 1994, the Wildlife Division of LDWF initiated this standardized statewide turkey brood survey. The survey begins on June 15, and the observer records all turkey sightings (poults, hens and gobblers) through Aug. 31. The time frame occurs when most poults are four weeks or older; therefore, it is hoped that survival of these poults is good prior to the next spring hunting season. The survey is divided into five habitat regions, and the turkey production is presented as number of poults per hen (PPH). The ratings for the various PPH categories range from poor (below 2 PPH) to excellent (4 or higher PPH).
In 2006, the Western longleaf pine habitat had a PPH of 3, and the Atchafalaya and Lower Mississippi Delta Habitat had a PPH of 2.6. The PPH for these two habitat types is considered good by Larry Savage, who coordinates the survey with the regions around the state.
In 2007, the Southeast loblolly habitat (2.6 PPH) and the North Mississippi delta habitat (3.0 PPH) had the best production. Both of these habitat types fall into the good category rating (2.6-3.2 PPH).
During the 2008 spring season, there were three jakes using the small property I hunt in Clinton. These were the first gobblers I have seen on this property in years, and this sighting supports the 2007 PPH survey that found good production in Southeast Louisiana pine habitat. Hopefully these gobblers, which would now be 2-year-old birds, have survived and will be around during the 2009 spring season.
In 2008, the Northwest loblolly/shortleaf/hardwood habitat (2.9 PPH) and the Southeast loblolly habitat (2.7 PPH) had the best production according to Savage. The Western longleaf pine habitat had a PPH of 2.5, which is almost in the good category.
Over the past three years, there has been some good production in all habitat areas across the state. Only the Southeast loblolly habitat has had consecutive years of good production, which may mean this region of the state is making a comeback after being down for many years.
Hunting should be fair to good throughout the state in 2009 based upon these surveys. Those regions with good production in 2006 and 2007 should have good numbers of adult gobblers available for harvest, and jake numbers should be good in areas with good production in 2008.
With the mandatory turkey tagging and validation system that is in effect for the 2009 spring turkey season, LDWF will now have access to the number of gobblers killed in each parish that is open for hunting. Biologists will be able to determine if there is a relationship between the poult survey and the harvest for the five different regions. It is a must that all turkey hunters report and validate their kills so that the turkey resource in this state can be properly managed.