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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. 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. This ensures 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
  • research findings about survival and harvest rates

Turkey harvest management can be quite a challenge. 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

Breeding 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;
  • minimize the risk to nesting hens, causing minimum disruption to breeding behavior; and
  • minimize 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 looked at the timing of turkey hunting seasons in the northeastern U.S. It 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. Therefore, 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. We have found that it does not have a significant impact on turkey abundance.

Shooting Hours

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. 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. 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. Therefore, 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. However, 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
  • potential for people to shoot birds while they are roosted in trees at dusk
  • 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. Then we will 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 presently.

To set appropriate fall hunting seasons, we engaged in a multi-year project. Its purpose was 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 began in 2015. It 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. It was also used 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. We set out to collect this information in 2013 including a field study to track hen harvest and survival.

Structured Decision Making

In order to 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. It 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. This simulated 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). It allowed us 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). The proposed season dates in the three proposed zones do not overlap (first two weeks of October in the Northern Zone; roughly the last two weeks of October in the Southern Zone; late November in Suffolk County). 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. The dates minimize impacts on archery deer hunting and do not overlap with regular deer seasons. The optimal two week-one bird season structure identified by the SDM process will meet these criteria. More information is available about the SDM process in the report, "Making Decisions for Fall Turkey Harvest in New York State" (PDF).

Research-Informed Decision Making

The changes to the fall hunting season were evaluated as part of a four-year research program. DEC staff banded almost 2,000 hens from 2013 through 2016. We attached satellite radios to over 200 hens over the four years to assess survival rates and harvest rates under the current (2013 and 2014) and revised (2015 and 2016) fall season structure. Over the four-year study, half or more of radioed hens were lost to predation and other sources of mortality during the summer months, and the majority (about 40%) of these were lost from May 9 - July 4. This pattern of higher seasonal mortality during the nesting and brood rearing season was similar across years, but annual survival varied by year. The estimated annual survival was lowest in 2013 and highest in 2016 (about 56%).

Fall harvest rates between 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 were compared because regulations were changed in 2015. Harvest rates were similar among all four years and when 2013-14 (pre-regulation change) and 2014-15 (post-regulation change) were compared (about 4%). Relatively low fall harvest rates maybe off-set by relatively high seasonal mortality and low annual survival.

While harvest rates on hens were similar among years, the percentage of hens in the harvest declined from an average of 50% in 2013-14 to 45% in 2015-16. More data are needed to determine whether the change in season structure that began in 2015 will consistently result in a lower percentage of hens in the fall harvest.

Changes to Fall Turkey Seasons

DEC adopted new regulations to modify fall turkey hunting seasons across the state starting in fall 2015. The new fall seasons are two weeks long with a statewide season bag limit of one bird of either sex. The regulatory proposal to implement these changes was published on May 13, 2015 and during the 45-day public comment period the department received over 100 comments. See the Assessment of Public Comment (PDF) to view a summary of the comments submitted and DEC's response. Almost all of the comments received on the regulatory proposal expressed concern over the decline in wild turkey populations over the past 15 years. Many were supportive of DEC's efforts to modify the fall hunting season to accommodate changing turkey populations and environmental conditions.

Wild Turkey Population Trends

We do not produce annual estimates of turkey population size. Instead, we 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. However, 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. This was 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. Other factors include 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. Still, 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. However, 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 do 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. The Summer Survey helps us estimate productivity (number of poults per hen). For more information, click the link 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!