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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. About 90,000 hunters participate in the spring hunting season and 45,000 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 three "season zones": the Northern Zone, the Southern Zone, and Suffolk County (Long Island). All zones have a two-week season, but the season start dates vary (see the fall season map for details). The statewide season bag limit is one bird of either sex. 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.

Management Considerations for the Spring Season

The spring hunting season coincides with the breeding season for wild turkeys. There is quite a bit of variation in the timing of breeding 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.

When managing the wild turkey, it is important that spring harvest is limited to males or "gobblers". Research has shown that, in many cases, you can remove a large portion (up to 30%) of the gobblers from a population and still have a healthy turkey population. In New York, spring turkey hunters are allowed to take only "bearded birds". The vast majority of bearded birds are males, although 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 have found that it does not have 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

Due to concerns about turkey population declines, DEC has initiated several studies to inform decisions regarding fall hunting season structure. The main drivers of turkey populations are weather, habitat, predation, and potentially, fall hunting mortality of hens (particularly adult hens). We are 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 2015.

To set appropriate fall hunting seasons, we engaged in a multi-year project to understand and respond to long-term declines in turkey populations and to ensure that harvest opportunities are sustainable. The new fall hunting season structure beginning in 2015 is based on the results of research conducted by DEC and its partners on ecological and social factors that influence turkey populations and management. This included:

  • A study of how weather and landscape-scale habitat features interact and influence the number of turkeys found in different parts of the state;
  • Surveys of turkey hunters to identify what they value in terms of turkey populations, a high quality hunting experience, and the trade-offs they are willing to make between hunting opportunity and turkey abundance; and
  • Field research where more than 450 hen turkeys are banded annually, some with satellite radios, so biologists can determine their survival and fall harvest rates.

The first step in this process was to identify the appropriate spatial scale for setting fall seasons. We assessed how weather and landscape-scale habitat characteristics interact to influence the turkey harvest potential of regions across the state. Analyses indicated that May and June rainfall and the complexity of habitat types and edges between habitats are important determinants of the number of turkeys a particular region produces. This resulted in grouping the state into three broad geographic regions based on their similar harvest potentials (northern NY, southeastern NY, and western NY).

We analyzed biological data on abundance, productivity and survival to see how these metrics vary regionally, and to develop a turkey population model to simulate the effects of different fall harvest strategies on turkey population dynamics and future harvest potential. Some of these data are collected annually, but we did not have information on hen harvest and survival, so we set out to collect this information in 2013 including a field study to track hen harvest and survival.

In order set an appropriate fall hunting season structure, we employed a "Structured Decision Making" (SDM) process. SDM is a transparent process for decision making that incorporates a range of data sources in an organized fashion. Such a process breaks a complex problem into its component parts. SDM allows managers to develop a decision framework that evaluates management strategies for providing a sustainable wild turkey population that balances competing objectives (e.g., turkey abundance and harvest opportunity) to provide optimal opportunities for hunters and other stakeholders.

Among the three regions identified in the harvest potential model, we then used turkey abundance, productivity, and survival data in the turkey population model to simulate the effects of different fall harvest strategies on turkey population dynamics and future harvest potential. We also incorporated data from social science surveys regarding hunters' motivations, values, and the trade-offs they make between hunting opportunity and turkey abundance. These biological and social data sets then allowed us to evaluate a series of harvest alternatives, from a conservative season (2 weeks, 1 bird bag limit) to a liberal season (7 weeks, 2 bird bag limit), to identify the optimal season framework for each region that best balances turkey populations and hunter satisfaction.

The optimal season alternative that did the best job of balancing the turkey population and hunter satisfaction was the same among all geographic regions: a two week season with bag limit of one bird of either sex.

Survey data indicate that fall turkey hunters spend 4-6 days afield on average, regardless of whether they hunt in a region with a two-week season (i.e., the Lake Plains) or a seven-week season (southeastern New York). Because the proposed season dates in the three proposed zones do not overlap (Northern Zone: Oct. 1-14; Southern Zone: Oct. 17-30; Suffolk County: Nov. 21-Dec. 4), a very dedicated hunter could hunt turkeys for up to six weeks in total if they were willing to move around the state.

Important factors in hunter satisfaction include hearing and seeing more birds (i.e., a stable or growing turkey population), a season that includes at least two weekends, and a season that does not overlap with the firearms deer season. Season dates in October in the Northern Zone and Southern Zone coincide with other small game hunting opportunities available at that time while minimizing impacts on archery deer hunting and not overlapping with regular deer seasons. The optimal two week-one bird season structure identified by the SDM process will meet these criteria.

The changes to the fall hunting season will be evaluated as part of a four-year research program. DEC staff banded over 1,000 hens in 2013 and 2014, attaching satellite radios to a portion of these, to assess survival rates and harvest rates under our current fall season structure. DEC staff will continue to band and track hens in 2015 and 2016 in order to evaluate the impact of a modification to the fall season on harvest and survival. This approach allows for adaptive harvest management whereby this information is used, in addition to the abundance, productivity, and hunter survey data collected annually, to offer sustainable fall harvest opportunities that reflect environmental conditions and current trends in turkey populations.

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 160,000-180,000 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).

After reaching their peak around 2001, wild turkey populations declined gradually over the next decade, followed by a more severe decline since 2009. There are several reasons for this, including a natural population contraction as turkey populations settled down to levels more in line with local environmental conditions, and other factors such as density dependence, poor production, and changing habitats and predator communities.

The decline in turkey numbers may be more pronounced in some 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 predation.

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 January 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).

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.

Thank you!