While turkeys traditionally serve as a tasty Thanksgiving treat, four state area farmers and ranchers have the unique opportunity to see the wily birds very similar to America’s forefathers.
Whether on the hunt for a prime cut of game meat or witnessing impressive groups in the pasture, wild turkeys have been a long-honored fixture for Missouri land owners and outdoor enthusiasts, until sightings began to get progressively scarcer in the last four years.
In honor of the Thanksgiving Holiday, Missouri Department of Conservation wild turkey biologist Reina Tyl shed some light on the declining turkey population across the state, as well as ongoing conservation efforts and research programs aimed at preserving and protecting these proud birds.
Pastures, Poults & Predators
“The turkey population decline is Missouri is both a long-term trend and also a steeper decline we’ve seen over the last five years,” Tyl said. “We believe that population decline is being driven by poor turkey production, which has been on a declining trend for several decades now.”
Many factors contribute to poor production for wild turkeys. In Missouri specifically, an increase in predators, particularly nest predators like raccoons and skunks, has contributed to fewer surviving poults and young turkeys. Additionally, landscape and habitat changes have left wild turkeys with less nesting and brooding territory, which can be critical to production.
“We've seen pretty broad scale landscape changes in Northern Missouri or Western Missouri, where there is more pasture land range,” Tyl said. “We've seen more grasslands being converted into row crop agriculture, which has kind of reduced the amount of nesting and habitat that's out there on the landscape.”
Both the lack of quality grassy areas with sheltering forests and forests that are too sheltered can contribute to loss of bird habitats. A happy medium of balanced grassland plants and sheltered areas is a basic necessity for turkey survival.
“In Southern Missouri, we've seen our forest grow up, mature, and create these really closed canopies that shade out the understory,” Tyl said. “That doesn't really provide any cover for nesting turkeys or provide any forging opportunities for young poults because they really liked to forage for insects in herbaceous, grassy areas.”
Tyl said heavy rainfall over shorter periods could also be a contributing factor to turkey decline, especially when heavy rains descend during nesting or brooding. All of these components interacting have an effect on hen turkeys trying to successfully nest and hatch young, as well as on the young turkeys’ ability to survive.
“Looking at all of those factors at the same time to figure out how to manipulate the system in a way that gives the turkeys a better chance,” Tyl said. “More habitat on the landscape will have the greatest effect on the population.”
“From 2016 to 2019 our poult to hen ratios were at record or near record lows since the beginning of that survey in 1959,” Tyl said. “There’s been a long-term declining trend in turkeys, but over those four years it was especially low, which has led to fewer turkeys on the landscape the last few years.”
How to Help
For perspective, Missouri has a turkey population somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 turkeys statewide, with around 2,010 turkeys harvested in the fall. A relatively small portion of the population is removed through hunting and overall, the statewide population of birds is at healthy levels.
However, for turkey lovers and conservationists, it’s never too early to witness downward trends and implement strategies to protect and preserve the state’s turkey population.
Tyl said improvement in crop production and agricultural technology has led to grassland being converted to crop production and a shortage of suitable habitat for turkeys. Suitable grassland and maintained forests are two of the most important aspects of wild turkey habitat.
“Obviously people need to produce hay to feed their livestock, but turkeys like to nest in those areas,” Tyl said. “If you hay too early, there's a good chance that it will lead to either the abandonment or possibly the destruction of quite a few turkey nests and then maybe even some turkeys themselves.”
Tyl said waiting to begin haying until late June would be an ideal scenario for turkey production, although she recognized the need for producer profitability often dictates an earlier start. While winter food plots definitely provide quality foraging opportunities for turkeys, Tyl said safe springtime conditions and long-term habitat are more critical to the birds survival.
For land owners with heavily wooded areas, allowing for some selective logging could be a simple way to increase quality turkey habitat and earn some extra cash.
“Go out, figure out what your best trees are, cut down the marginal ones and create holes in that tree canopy,” Tyl said. “Opening up the canopy lets light hit the forest floor, which helps regeneration for saplings and can even get some grass growing or some more herbaceous plants growing up.”
Fall Feather Collection
For the current fall hunting season, Missouri Department of Conservation asked rifle and archery hunters across the state to turn in tail feathers from harvested birds to help program researchers identify and monitor turkey numbers across the state.
“We are doing the fall turkey feather collection project just to refine some of the information that we're using to develop some new population models,” Tyl said. “These new models will allow us to better track turkey population trends on a regional level in Missouri through time and give us annual estimates of actual population sizes within our region.”
In part, the harvest rate estimates are to insure harvest is not contributing to population decline or having a negative impact on population growth. So far, all signs point to healthy harvests in Missouri, with numbers on par with previous years according to long-term data.
“We recently assessed our harvest rates through a field study where we banded and put radio transmitters on quite a few birds,” Tyl said. “That information showed us that our harvest rates are low now compared to where they were several decades ago and based on all the other information we have, we don't believe that harvest is contributing to the population decline.”
Collected feathers will provide an extra data source for population models and allow researchers to more accurately pinpoint regional and local turkey populations in order to address declines.
Turkey hunters who want to participate in the MDC research project can get more information and provide their mailing addresses at mdc.mo.gov/turkeyfeathers. They can also call MDC at 573-815-7901 ext. 2940, or email MDC’s Wild Turkey Management Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.