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Wild Turkey Research

Wild turkeys are one of the most popular game species in New York State. Over 100,000 hunters participate in the spring hunting season and 65,000 hunters take to the field each fall in pursuit of this great game bird. Successful long-term management of turkey populations requires knowledge attained through rigorous science. Only by determining the past and current status of wild turkeys, their habitats, and public concerns and expectations can we manage this important resource in a sustainable manner.

View or download a presentation on the status and trends of New York's wild turkey population, and the research program initiated by DEC to tackle the conservation challenges facing the state's most popular game bird: Wild Turkey Management in New York: Past, Present, and Future (PDF) (2 MB).

Wild Turkey Research Program

The main "drivers" of turkey populations are weather, habitat, predation, and potentially, fall hunting mortality of hens (particularly adult hens). Our research program is focused on gathering information on these factors to determine their relative importance, and to adapt our management program in the context of the ecological system in which it has to exist. There is evidence that the ecological system has changed over the past 20 years. The impact of predation or fall hunting mortality in 1995, when populations were rapidly expanding, may be different than the impact of predation or fall hunting mortality in 2012. It is our job to figure out if and how the system has changed, and to adjust our management accordingly.

New York Wild Turkey Research Program

Since we initiated the gobbler survival and harvest mortality study in 2006-09 (see report below), our goal has been to put together the "puzzle pieces" of turkey management. Currently, we are examining the combined factors of weather and habitat to produce a map of turkey "harvest" potential for New York (see description below). This will provide us with a sound ecological basis upon which we can base fall season zones.

In the next year we will be initiating two new studies. The first provides insight into the "human dimensions" aspect of turkey management. We are partnering with Cornell University's Human Dimensions Research Unit to conduct a statewide survey of turkey hunters to determine their motivations, attitudes, and opinions on turkey populations, hunting opportunities, and issues of concern to them. Understanding what hunters desire from and for the resource is an important part of turkey management.

Finally, hen survival is the major driving force behind turkey population changes. To better understand what is happening in New York, we will be conducting a large scale study where we band hens, radio-collaring some, to determine seasonal and annual hen survival and mortality. This should provide insight into the role of predation on hens, as well as the possible impacts of hunting mortality during the fall.

The long-term goal is to have all these pieces of the puzzle come together to produce a complete picture of turkey management in New York. The logical outcome of this is a revision of the wild turkey management plan that was completed in 2005.

Ecological Modeling of Wild Turkey Harvest Potential

Beginning in fall 2010, DEC will partner with National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to investigate the wild turkey harvest potential of the landscapes within New York State. Important factors that affect turkeys in New York include spring weather effects on reproductive success, winter weather effects on survival, effects of landscape configuration on reproduction and survival, and hunter harvest rates, especially during fall when hens may be legally taken. Spring harvests are less likely to affect overall population status, but at very high levels may affect age structure of males in the population, which is important for hunter satisfaction.

Successful Fall Turkey Hunters

Spring weather, winter weather, and landscape configuration vary significantly across the state. Consequently, the ability of turkey populations to sustain harvests also differs across the state. For example, areas that typically experience high spring rainfall, severe winter weather, and lack a favorable mix of forest and open lands, would likely sustain lower harvest rates than other areas of the state. This environmental influence on "turkey harvest potential" is something that could be mapped using long-term weather or climatic data combined with land cover analysis. New York's long-term turkey harvest data, recorded at the township level, provides an unique opportunity to develop such a map of the state.

The importance of weather and land use as basic environmental factors affecting wild turkey populations was recognized in New York's first management plan for this species (NYSDEC Bureau of Wildlife 1985). That plan included a map of wild turkey ranges that included five categories of biological potential to which ecological zones of the state were assigned based on judgement of professional staff. However, that map is not reflected in the turkey hunting zones we have today.

New York currently has six fall turkey hunting zones. Each zone has a distinct combination of season length (1-7 weeks) and bag limit (1-2 per day and season), but each may also include ecological units that have very different turkey harvest potential. With advances in GIS, much new information on turkey populations (e.g., productivity, harvest and survival rates from the banding study), and continued high demand for turkey hunting opportunity, a more ecologically-based delineation of turkey harvest zones is warranted. This project will help determine the best spatial scale for wild turkey management and enable us to delineate season zones based on key ecological factors. This will help us provide as much harvest opportunity as possible, while ensuring sustainable use of the wild turkey resource.

The objectives of this study are to: (1) update and integrate existing models relating spring weather and land cover patterns to indices of wild turkey reproduction and survival, to produce a combined model of wild turkey harvest potential; (2) assess the relationship of winter weather to indices of wild turkey survival, and incorporate results into the above model; (3) determine the optimal geographic scale for delineation of harvest management zones based on combined weather and landscape habitat models; and (4) use the combined model to classify the long-term harvest potential of townships or other discreet areas throughout New York State.

We foresee four important products from this work that will benefit hunters, wildlife managers and the wild turkey. First, the research will draw together two of the major influences of population dynamics, landscape-scale habitat conditions and weather, into a single GIS model. This unified model will enable us to map the long-term (sustainable, rather than annual) harvest potential for wild turkeys across the state based on the underlying habitat quality and the expected variation in weather. Managing for sustainable harvest levels will help ensure healthy wild turkey populations which are essential for hunter opportunity and satisfaction. Second, the research will provide a stronger scientific foundation for enhancing hunting opportunity while protecting the resource. The model will identify areas where habitat and weather combine to create conditions that can support higher populations and help explain variation in wild turkey distribution and abundance. Third, the research will identify regions where wild turkey populations are more likely to fluctuate in synchrony because of the combination of habitat and weather. Mapping these regions will provide a foundation for review and possible modification of wild turkey management zones in New York based on their ability to sustain certain levels of harvest. Lastly, our analyses should help identify areas of the state where wild turkeys are limited primarily by habitat conditions, allowing DEC, NWTF, and others to better direct habitat improvement efforts. The study is expected to be completed by 2014, after which DEC will consider possible adjustments to fall turkey hunting zones and regulations.

Wild Turkey Spring Harvest Rates and Annual Survival Rates Study

A photo of banded turkey legs

In 2009, DEC completed a 4-year wild turkey banding project designed to estimate harvest and survival rates of male wild turkeys ("gobblers") in New York. This study is being done in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, researchers from Pennsylvania State University, and the National Wild Turkey Federation. The objectives of this work are to: (1) Estimate harvest rates of male wild turkeys during the spring season; (2) Estimate annual survival rates of male wild turkeys; (3) Estimate non-hunting mortality rates of male wild turkeys; (4) Estimate hunter reporting rates of harvested wild turkeys; (5) Use the estimated harvest rates and independent harvest estimates to calculate a population estimate for male wild turkeys in each state; and (6) Investigate landscape factors (e.g., percent forest cover, patchiness of forested areas, human population density, etc.) related to harvest rates. We designed this study as a band-recovery study so that data could be collected from all management units in all 3 states during the 2006-2009 spring hunting seasons. Also, we evaluated the retention of butt-end leg bands.

A photo of a turkey release

DEC thanks all of the volunteers and cooperating landowners for their invaluable assistance in the field. This project would not be possible without them.

The complete final report entitled, "Annual Survival and Spring Harvest Rates of Male Wild Turkeys in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania" (PDF) (434 kB) is available for viewing or download.