South Carolina Wild Turkey Reproduction Increased Substantially

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After five years of less than desirable production, wild turkey recruitment increased substantially in 2010 based on a S.C. Department of Natural Resources survey.

Annually since the early 1980's, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducts a Summer Turkey Survey to estimate reproduction and recruitment of turkeys in South Carolina. The survey involves agency wildlife biologists, technicians and conservation officers, as well as many volunteers from other natural resource agencies and the general public.

Although wild turkeys nest primarily in April and May in South Carolina, the survey does not take place until late summer, according to Charles Ruth, DNR Deer and Wild Turkey Program coordinator. Therefore, the survey statistics document poults (young turkeys) that actually survived and entered the population going into the fall.

All indicators were much better in 2010 compared to the last few years, said Ruth. The average brood size of 4.5 poults was up 21 percent and the total recruitment ratio of 2.6 was up 44 percent compared to 2009. Recruitment ratio is a measure of young entering the population based on the number of hens in the population. These increases were driven by a decrease in the percentage of hens that had no poults. In 2009, 55 percent of hens observed during the two month survey had no poults accompanying them, but in 2010 that figure dropped to 41 percent, the lowest figure in 6 years. "At the regional level it appears that reproduction improved in all parts of the state, a positive indicator considering the declining trend that we have seen the last few years, said Ruth."

It is unclear why reproduction in turkeys improved this year. In the Southeast Mother Nature often plays a big role in turkey populations with heavy rainfall coupled with cool temperatures during the spring nesting and brood rearing season leading to poor reproductive success." However, given that we have had consistently poor reproduction over the last 5 to 6 years in spite of variable weather conditions, it is difficult to say that there was anything related to the weather that contributed to the substantial increase in reproductive success this year.

What does better reproduction in 2010 mean for the spring turkey hunter? Ruth indicated, "Harvest trends have followed the trends in reproduction in recent years and we have seen about a 30 percent decline in turkey harvest since 2002.  With substantially better reproduction in 2010 the number of turkeys available during the spring of 2011 season should increase. However, most of the increase in 2011 will be in the form of jakes (immature gobblers) and it will be 2012 before this year's reproductive output will show up in the form of mature gobblers (2 year old birds). Another positive note, said Ruth, is the gobbler to hen ratio remained good with a statewide average of 0.69 gobblers to each hen.  Many experts believe that when gobbler to hen ratios get below 0.5, the quality of hunting can be impacted because hens are extremely available which affects gobbling and responsiveness to calling by hunters.

"The bottom line," Ruth said, "is this type of reproduction is exactly what we need to overcome less than desirable reproduction the last six years." That is the nice thing about turkeys though; given the right conditions they can naturally bounce back in a short period of time.

"Anyone interested in participating in the annual Summer Turkey Survey is encouraged to sign-up", said Ruth. The survey period is July 1-August 29 annually and folks who participate typically spend some reasonable amount of time outdoors during that time period. Cooperators obviously must be able to identify wild turkeys and must be comfortable in telling the difference between hens, poults, and gobblers. Cooperators are provided with survey forms prior to the survey and a reporting notice and postage paid envelop at the end of the survey period. If you would like to participate in the survey, send your name and address to Summer Turkey Survey, P.O. Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202. You will be added to the cooperator list and receive materials at the end of June annually. Those interested in the survey can also download instructions and survey forms.