If you’re a turkey hunter, you may have noticed something, or rather a scarcity of something, while traveling around the district this spring — wild turkeys.
In our region we’ve grown accustomed to seeing big springtime flocks strewn across fields and pastures, gobblers fanned out in display for the hens, especially on damp overcast days, the kind of days that bring turkeys into the open.
But this spring the birds seem conspicuous by their absence. In my own travels, I’ve seen a lone gobbler here or there, and one pair sparring in a field. But instead of the expected dozen or so disinterested hens, I might spy one or two. It’s not reliable to base estimates of wildlife populations on personal observation alone. There are often other variables at work. But wild turkeys do appear to be in local decline.
Many factors could be affecting wild turkey reproduction and survival. Spates of cold, wet weather have marked recent springs. If those conditions occur just after clutches of turkey eggs have hatched, the survival rate of the vulnerable chicks drops.
The recent winter was challenging for turkey flocks, too, especially in the mountains. Ice fell or formed repeatedly atop a persistent snowpack, making it difficult for turkeys to scratch through to find food beneath.
There is also concern that West Nile virus could be affecting wild turkeys. West Nile mortality has not yet been documented, but Game Commission biologists are studying the possibility now. Turkey hunters voluntarily submitted blood and feather samples last fall for analysis for the presence of infection. West Nile has already seriously thinned ruffed grouse numbers across the state.
The 2021 spring gobbler season runs May 1-31, with a special one-day youth mentor hunt set for April 24. Despite the apparent decline in birds, Game Commission statistics say the state’s southwestern corner, historically, has been the best place to hunt spring gobblers.
Wildlife Management Unit 2A, comprised of the western Fayette lowlands, all of Greene County, and most of Washington County, led the state in a three-year (2018-2020) average of spring gobbler harvest density, with 1.6 tagged per square mile. The statewide average is 0.8 gobblers taken per square mile. That means hunters in our local WMU 2A tag twice as many toms per unit area as hunters, on average, across Pennsylvania.
Wildlife Management Unit 2C, covering the eastern Fayette highlands, eastern Westmoreland County and all of Somerset, did slightly better than the state average, with 0.9 gobblers per square mile over the past three springs.
WMU 2A also boasted a high percentage of successful spring hunters over that span. Better than one in three hunters (35 percent) tagged a gobbler there. The rate was one in four (24 percent) in WMU 2C. Hunter success rates in most units across the state are well below one in five.
Spring hunting has little impact on turkey populations because only male birds displaying a visible beard (gobblers) are legal game. The fall season has greater potential to impact populations because both male and female birds are legal to take.
Both sexes are legal in fall because young birds born the previous spring are often encountered, and it can be difficult to discern the difference between genders at that age. Most young males do not yet display a beard. The only subtle difference is that young males are slightly larger, and darker in color than females. Because females (hens) are often harvested in fall, manipulating fall hunting season length and methods are the primary ways wildlife managers influence turkey populations.
Although we may be just noticing a decline in turkeys locally, the Game Commission has noted a drop in other regions for several years. Of the state’s 23 Wildlife Management Units, 15 currently have turkey populations below goals set by biologists.
At its quarterly meeting last week, the board of game commissioners took several actions to reduce turkey mortality during the fall season. The commission voted to make the 2021 fall season one week shorter in 14 units, including here in WMU 2C, which will have just a two-week season (Oct. 30-Nov. 13), plus a three-day season at Thanksgiving (Nov. 24-26). Unit 2A will have the same two-week fall hunt (Oct. 30-Nov. 13), but no Thanksgiving season.
Commissioners also voted to limit fall turkey hunting to the use of shotguns, crossbows, muzzleloaders, and archery equipment. Center- and rim-fire rifles will no longer be legal to use during the fall seasons. Rifles have never been legal to use in the spring season.
Game Commission reports show that although a small proportion of fall turkey hunters use rifles (14 percent), rifles account for a disproportionate fraction of turkeys harvested (33 percent) statewide.
Quoted in a Game Commission press release after the meeting, Commissioner Scott Foradora, who presents District 3 in northcentral Pennsylvania said: “The Board of Commissioners wants to take the necessary steps to protect Pennsylvania’s turkey populations, which have been below-goal in many Wildlife Management Units. Faced with a decision between either [further] shortening the overall season length which will impact all turkey hunters or removing rifles which are used by a smaller group of hunters, the board believed that the better option is to remove rifles. Taking rifles out of the fall season will reduce the harvest of hens in that season, without further reducing season lengths, thus giving turkeys further protection without limiting hunters’ time afield.”