Wild turkeys: It’s tough to add birds

A good hatch: hopefully, these young turkeys will survive and continue to grow and increase the number of turkeys in the population.

If you have never hunted turkeys, let me suggest that you don’t start. Turkey hunting can become quite addictive, and once you’re hooked, it is difficult to stop.

I grew up in northwest Louisiana in the 1960s, a time when there were no turkeys to hunt. A few attempts had been made to restock Webster Parish with birds, but efforts had not been successful. Consequently, we never hunted turkeys. In fact, I didn’t see my first wild turkey until I was in college in 1972.

I went to work for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in 1976 as a biologist in the Florida parishes and quickly discovered a world that had wild turkeys. I was soon looking forward to spring turkey season. I also became involved with the department’s continued restocking efforts and was able to send turkeys to Webster Parish and adjacent Bienville Parish.

Turkey hunting and management work can be quite rewarding, but when the populations crash, it can be quite frustrating. Many of the early restocking efforts failed because of poaching. Locked gates and posted signs helped to make our restocking efforts more successful in many areas.

Hard times

At one time, the state’s Wildlife Management Areas provided good hunting opportunity for hunters. A glance at 2021 tells a somewhat different story. Pearl River WMA was once a premier area for turkey hunting, but this year, it offers only a 2-day, general lottery hunt. This population crashed in the 1990s, and Hurricane Katrina helped seal the deal.

Sherburne WMA was another premier area that greatly contributed to the public-land harvest, but it offers only a 2-day, general lottery hunt and a 3-day hunt open to all hunters. Some of the better WMAs along the Mississippi River drainage have had populations declining due to flooding and timber issues, Sherburne being one of them.

The Kisatchie National Forest in the western part of the state has become an important area for wild turkeys, but guess what? Hurricane Laura hit last August and did extensive damage in southwest and central Louisiana. A U.S. Department of Agriculture newsletter indicated that the storm did $1.1 billion in damage to Louisiana’s timber industry, but the national forest lands, for the most part, are open this year for several weeks of turkey hunting.

Turkey hunting success depends on having turkeys to hunt. Even in parishes that have wild turkeys, there may be areas that have limited populations. Such is the case in my area of East Feliciana. Before the two major floods in March and August 2016, turkey numbers were good, but after the flooding, birds seemed to have disappeared. My theory is that disease issues arose after the flood, causing the decline. The last turkey I held in my hands was a gobbler I found in 2017 that had died from a virus.

Hatching necessity

In order for turkey numbers to increase around Louisiana, we must have a successful nesting season. In his book, Louisiana Wild Turkeys: History, Science, Management and Hunting, Jimmy Stafford writes that about 10% to 40% of turkey nests survive, and of those, only about 25% of hatched poults survive to four weeks. It would seem the odds of greatly increasing turkey numbers are not good; because of this, it takes a lot of turkeys to have a lot of turkeys, and when numbers are low, it doesn’t seem to happen.

Nesting habitat and brood-rearing habitat are critical. Turkeys nest in areas with cover: briar patches, logging areas with downed timber, tall grass fields, etc. When eggs are laid, numerous predators would like to feast on turkey eggs, raccoons, opossums, snakes and hogs being on the list.

This looks like good turkey habitat, and while I know turkeys roost in the woods, I have never in 14 years seen them feeding in this field; turkey management can be quite perplexing.

Turkey poults feast on insects when they hatch, and habitat that provides the young birds with insects is critical. Openings are important, but not all openings will provide poults with good numbers of insects. Cover is a must for young birds in order to escape predators. Brood-rearing habitat must also provide birds with seeds from grasses and herbaceous plants.

Habitat needs

Vegetation height is important. Openings that are thick with tall grasses may not be suitable for newly born poults, and likewise, openings with sparse vegetation may not provide the older poults with sufficient food. As the seasons change so does the food requirements change for the growing population. Habitat diversity is a must to meet the demand of these birds. This is where habitat management comes into focus.

Habitat-management work for turkeys includes management of food plots, forest openings and timber habitat, the latter through prescribed burning. Burning is somewhat lacking in many parts of Louisiana, and this is where the old bushhog can help, with periodic cuttings, that set back vegetation growth and development.

Food plots that provide seed-producing grasses and clovers are a must. Timber management that will provide both hard mast and soft mast will really benefit turkey numbers.

The only guarantee in turkey management is that if you do nothing, turkey numbers will remain low. But it is also not a guarantee that if you do the work, numbers will respond positively. However, once you hear a tom gobble and have him come strutting in to your set-up, you have to keep doing the work.

About David Moreland 245 Articles
David Moreland is a retired wildlife biologist with LDWF, having served as the State Deer Biologist for 13 years and as Chief of the Wildlife Division for three years. He and his wife Prudy live in rural East Feliciana Parish.