Turkey Harvest Management
Management Considerations for the Spring & Fall Hunting Seasons
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.
New York State has both spring and fall hunting seasons for wild turkeys. The spring season begins in late April during New York's two-day youth turkey hunt and continues May 1-31 for all hunters. There is a two-bird bag limit (one bird per day), shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon, and the spring season is open in all of New York State north of the Bronx-Westchester county border and in Suffolk County (two-day youth hunt only). For the fall season, the state is divided into six "season zones" that range from 1 week long with a 1-bird bag limit (Suffolk County) to 7 weeks long with a 2-bird bag limit (central and southeastern New York). Shooting hours during the fall season are from sunrise to sunset.
We set the timing of the seasons, season lengths, and bag limits fairly conservatively to ensure a sustainable harvest and a quality hunting experience. We base these decisions on long-term biological data such as historic harvest numbers from the spring and fall seasons, surveys of poults and hens during the summer, surveys of flocks during the winter, estimates of habitat quantity and quality in various geographic areas, and research findings about survival and harvest rates.
Turkey harvest management can be quite a challenge, but our primary goal is to protect the long-term security of the wild turkey population while still providing opportunities for hunters and others to enjoy the wild turkey resource now and in the future. DEC recently conducted a four-year research project (2006-09) to measure survival and harvest rates of male turkeys ("gobblers") under our current regulations (season length, bag limits, shooting hours). In addition, we are currently studying the harvest potential of the various landscapes found in New York State in an effort to improve management of turkey populations and fall hunting seasons. It is important that we maintain the same regulations during the entire study so we have a clear understanding of how harvest may be influenced by factors such as habitat, weather, and production.
Management Considerations for the Spring Season
The timing of the spring hunting season coincides with the breeding season for wild turkeys. There is quite a bit of variation in the timing of breeding as you move from southern latitudes (earlier breeding, nesting, and hatching in the southern U.S.) to northern latitudes (later breeding, nesting, and hatching in New York and the northeast). The goal for managing the spring hunting season is to give hunters the greatest amount of opportunity to go afield and harvest a bird, while minimizing the risk to nesting hens, causing minimum disruption to breeding behavior, and minimizing the risk of overharvest. To do this, we open the spring season near the median date for the onset of incubation (when hens are on nests). A recent study by Virginia Tech looking at timing of turkey hunting seasons in the northeastern U.S. found that the timing of New York's spring season was ideal based on data for breeding and nesting turkeys in our region.
One of the most important "rules" that we use when managing the spring hunting season is that spring harvest is limited to males or "gobblers". Research has shown that, in many cases, you can remove a large portion of the gobblers from a population (up to 30%), and still have a healthy turkey population. In New York, spring turkey hunters are allowed to kill only "bearded birds". The vast majority of bearded birds are males, but a small number of females have beards (about 5%).
The removal of females ("hens") by hunting, predation, disease, or other means plays a much larger role in limiting turkey abundance, so we try to minimize the loss of hens during the critical breeding, nesting, and brood-rearing season in the spring. As previously mentioned, some hens have beards and about 1% of the spring harvest is bearded hens; however, this represents less than 1% of the overall hen population, so we do not think it has a significant impact on turkey abundance.
One way we try to protect hens in the spring is to restrict shooting hours. The current shooting hours from ½-hour before sunrise until noon are intended to protect nesting hens because incubating hens (hens sitting on eggs in a nest) tend to leave the nest to feed in the afternoon. If hunters are afield in the afternoon, the likelihood that a hen is killed, either accidentally (mistaken for a gobbler) or illegally ("poaching") may increase. The killing of hens, either illegal or accidental, can have serious impacts on turkey populations, and at high levels (for example, if 10% or more of adult hens are killed annually), it will reduce rates of population growth. Unfortunately, these issues are difficult to measure and control, so we limit shooting hours to try to minimize any potential negative impacts. Research in states like Missouri, Virginia, and West Virginia has shown that poaching can have a negative effect on population growth, but we do not know if "all-day" spring hunting (sunrise to sundown) would result in many more hens being killed either accidentally or illegally. Other concerns related to all-day hunting include disturbing birds when they are going to the roost in the evening, the potential for people to shoot birds while they are roosted in trees at dusk, and disruption of traditional spring hunting activities such as "roosting" birds at dusk (locating birds at a distance by enticing them to gobble while on the roost).
Management Considerations for the Fall Season
There are six season zones for fall turkey hunting in New York that range from about 1 week long with a 1-bird bag limit (Suffolk County on Long Island) to 7 weeks long with a 2-bird bag limit (central and southeastern New York). Season length and bag limits are based on the varying turkey densities and hunting pressure in each zone. For example, the good mix of woodlands, early successional habitat, and agriculture in central and eastern NY supports higher turkey population densities than the relatively homogeneous habitat in the western Appalachian Hills. In addition, fall hunting pressure (days effort per square mile) is 50% lower in central and eastern NY than in the western part of the state, thus the turkey population in this area can support a longer season with a higher bag limit. Adverse weather conditions, especially in "lake effect" areas, can also reduce turkey productivity or survival, making for lower harvest potential for turkey populations in these regions.
In all season zones the timing of the season is important and can dramatically impact the number of birds harvested by hunters. The highest proportion of turkeys killed occurs on opening day, and daily kill diminishes rapidly through the second week. When the opening day of turkey season coincides with the opening day for other game species (e.g., bow hunting for deer in October, small game on October 1), harvest is substantially increased because of the increased hunter effort and opportunistic harvest of turkeys. If necessary, separating the start of turkey season from other hunting seasons allows us to be relatively conservative about the number of birds taken and helps maintain a sustainable harvest. Furthermore, we try to open seasons as late as possible in the fall to take advantage of the rapid growth of juvenile turkeys during autumn, while still providing hunters sufficient time to go afield and have an enjoyable hunt prior to the start of the regular deer season.
Why not hunt turkeys after the close of the deer season? A late season hunt is not offered for several reasons. Deer season ends in mid-December in most years and in most places. At that time of year turkeys are entering a period where they are under a lot of stress as they attempt to deal with the cold and snow of winter. Just as cold, wet weather during the spring/early summer nesting season can have a big impact on nesting success and poult survival, winter weather can have a big impact on survival of turkeys, particularly jakes (juvenile males) and jennies (juvenile females) that hatched the previous summer. We want to avoid having hunters pursuing birds during this critical period. Furthermore, there are "fair chase" implications of having hunters pursue birds in deep snow where turkeys have limited mobility, as well as the relative ease of hunting large congregations of birds drawn to fields to feed on waste grain and manure.
There is a lot of year-to-year variation in turkey populations due to the effect of weather and other factors on productivity and survival. Rather than trying to continually change season length and bag limit based on changes in turkey population size, we have chosen to offer seasons that can be sustained on a long-term basis and allow population changes to occur within the season length and bag limit parameters we have set.
Wild Turkey Population Trends
We do not produce annual estimates of turkey population size, but instead use harvest data and other surveys as indices of population size and trends. Based on these data, we estimate an average statewide population of 250,000 birds. There are some problems with using harvest numbers as an index of abundance, but in general, harvest data do a fair job of showing trends in populations over time (view the graphs of trends in fall harvest and spring harvest). Turkey numbers peaked in the late 1990s and have declined since that time. There are several reasons for the decline. Turkey populations boomed in New York during the 1980s and 90s as birds filled in available habitats and moved into areas where they historically did not exist. The decline that started around 2000 was likely, in part, a population contraction that has occurred as populations peaked and are now settling down to somewhat lower but relatively stable levels in balance with local environmental conditions. That being said, there is still much year-to-year variation in turkey numbers due to annual variation in production.
Declines in turkey numbers may be more pronounced in some local areas. Reasons for this include cold wet spring weather, tough winters, and changes in habitat quantity and quality. In areas where open habitats such as agricultural fields, hayfields, old fields, thickets, and young forests have been lost due to development and vegetative succession, there are fewer turkeys. In areas with a larger proportion of "big woods" turkeys will persist, but at lower densities than areas with a mix of mature timber, early successional habitats, and agriculture.
Predation can play a role in limiting turkey populations, but it is more likely that the problem is poor habitat quality that makes birds, their nests, and broods more vulnerable to predation. Turkeys have evolved behaviors and reproductive strategies to cope with predation, but in highly fragmented landscapes predators may be more efficient in finding turkeys and their nests. This is particularly true for nest predators such as raccoons, skunks, and opossums. In areas with poor brood habitat quality, such as low stem densities or poor overhead cover, turkeys and poults may be more vulnerable to avian predators such as hawks and owls. Larger predators, such as coyotes, may be impacting turkeys or other game birds on a small scale, but it is unclear whether they are affecting populations in large regions of New York or statewide. DEC recently initiated a study to look at coyote habitat use and diet preferences. The results of this research will lend some insight into the role of coyotes in limiting populations of game species.
There has also been a decline in hunter participation during the fall turkey hunting season and a concomitant decline in the number of birds reported. The decline is probably due to both a loss of hunters (with poor recruitment of new hunters) and a lack of interest in fall turkey hunting by existing hunters (or at least a preference for other types of hunting such as bow hunting for deer). The number of hunters during the spring has been stable in recent years.
You Can Help!
DEC is committed to preserving the long-term health of wild turkey populations for the people of New York State. In order to this, we need the help of hunters and others to monitor trends in turkey abundance and distribution.
Whether you hunt, or just enjoy seeing turkeys, you can contribute your observations to DEC in our Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey during the month of August or the Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey from December through March. The Summer Survey helps us estimate productivity (number of poults per hen) and the Winter Survey helps monitor the size of the flock prior to the breeding season in the spring. For more information, click the links above, call 518-402-8883, or e-mail us (please write the name of the survey in the subject line).
We recently completed a study where we fit turkeys with leg bands to help estimate harvest rates and survival rates. Information from this study and from all harvest reports helps us improve turkey management in New York. If you are a hunter, it is important that you report your harvest. The information you provide helps us accurately estimate harvest and make sound management decisions for this important game bird. Remember, you're not just a hunter, you're a conservationist. Help us manage the wildlife resource.