I quickly changed from my fishing shorts to my hunting britches and scurried up the ridge to see if the gobble I heard was just my imagination.
In my haste, I almost ran over a startled gobbler before he skedaddled. I guess I hadn’t heard a turkey in so long, I forgot to act like I was hunting. Later that afternoon, I wore myself out chasing a tom and his hen up and down the steep hills next to Dale Hollow Lake. It sounds like a bad dream, but it was actually a breath of fresh air.
I have oodles of acres leased for hunting scattered throughout Tennessee. But I’ve seen very few turkeys of late. That’s what led me to try my hand at public land. When I saw fellow Tennessean Will Brantley’s article in Field & Stream, it confirmed my fears of a dwindling turkey population.
The US turkey population has dropped approximately one million birds since 2004, but the downturn is even more devastating if you hunt locally. Brantley explained that it’s just certain pockets that have seen precipitous declines. The East has been hit hard, especially in states like Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. In case you weren’t paying attention, that’s us!
I called upon Roger Shields, Tennessee’s Wild Turkey Program Coordinator, for some answers. He explained that TWRA in partnership with the University of Tennessee is in year three of a five-year, one-million-dollar turkey research project. Shields explained that the results weren’t yet in, but there are likely many factors involved in the population decline. He discussed several of those potential factors.
Perhaps the most intriguing cause could be predation. I vividly remember when we started seeing more coyotes in Tennessee. The word got out that there was nothing for hunters to worry about, and coyotes were rodent and berry specialists that only ate big game if it were dead or dying. Soon after, the proliferation of trail cameras proved otherwise. The cams caught coyotes not just killing poults and fawns but mature turkeys and deer, too. Wildlife biologists later confirmed that coyote kills were putting a dent in game populations.
I recently read a controversial article entitled, “Coyotes don’t reduce deer populations.” (See https://wildlife.org/jwm-coyotes-dont-reduce-deer-populations/). Despite the coyotes’ growing numbers, researchers in a study found no indication they are bringing down deer numbers. In fairness, the article states that the study concentrates on large scale losses across the continent, and that coyotes can indeed have an impact in pockets. There’s that “pockets” word again. It appears everyone I talk to lives or hunts in one of these pockets where yotes reduce game populations.
If you add predators like coyotes, hawks, foxes, owls, bobcats and even black vultures to the egg-eaters like skunks, snakes, weasels, coons and opossums, I’m guessing turkey numbers take a hit. And that’s before you even consider the turkeys’ biggest nemesis, ole “Roadkill” Gil and his trusty bow – turkeys can, of course, die of laughter.
Shields had several other potential theories. The previous rapid expansion of the turkey population was nothing short of miraculous. Maybe the decline is a natural correction of exceeding the turkeys’ carrying capacity. Perhaps diseases like West Nile virus and blackhead disease have negatively affected the turkey population. Maybe it’s about habitat. Especially in the East and Southeast, the habitat has been modified. Farming and timbering practices have changed. We now use fire as a management tool.
What about the pockets, and why am I always hunting deep inside them? Shields mentioned that crazy weather patterns are often local. For instance, poult production this spring was most likely hurt more in west Tennessee than surrounding areas because of local flooding. From 0-4 weeks, poults feed almost exclusively on protein like insects. From 5-8 weeks, they need more vegetation like flowers and forbs. If those needs aren’t met due to Mother Nature, a whole brood class can be virtually wiped out. A couple of bad poult production years in a row can ravage a turkey population because the few turkeys that do survive to adulthood usually only live four to five years.
All of this is still conjecture, and we hope to get more detailed answers when the study is finished. In the meantime, there’s still a little time left this season to bag your gobbler. If you hunt in one of these pockets, I suggest you change your britches!