OUTSIDE: Declining turkey population raises questions | Sports

Missouri’s turkey gun season kicked off Oct. 1 and continues through Halloween. While the number of participating hunters has declined in recent years, the turkey population has seen an even more dramatic decline.

The parallel declines are correlated. With less chance of completing tags or even finding a flock, incentives to hunt the biggest wild bird in the fall can’t keep pace with other activities available during a golden time of year to be there. ‘outside.

The reasons for the reduction in the number of turkeys are more difficult to discern, but it is not for lack of theories. There are almost as many suspicious reasons as there are hunters. Everyone has an opinion, ranging from too many armadillos to too few zygentomes and other insects.

For more than 60 years, the state Department of Conservation has monitored the turkey population using an index called the hen-poult ratio as a measure of nesting success. Current numbers are historically low, with a statewide average of only one poult seen for every hen, according to the Missouri Wild Turkey Harvest and Population Status Report 2021, available at mdc.mo.gov.

Spikes in the data since 1959 have shown ratios as high as four to one in four different years and more than three to one in 14 summers. Over the past 60 years, however, the numbers have been reduced to one for one or less seven times, including each of the past six years. Statewide, the ratio is down 17% from the recent 10-year average and 23% below the 20-year average.

Poult to hen ratio surveys are conducted by volunteers and Conservation Service staff who observe the birds in June, July and August. Numbers are recorded by county and then analyzed across regions that have similar habitat. Jefferson County is part of a group of 12 counties in a corridor called Union Breaks that borders the west and south banks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from Cape Girardeau to Cooper County upstream from Jefferson City.

Other numbers monitored to assess the state of the state’s turkey population are overall harvest totals, which are most heavily weighted by the spring season, when only male turkeys are targeted, and account for more than 98% of the harvest. Spring totals exceeded 60,000 in one year and remained above 50,000 birds from 1999 to 2006, before spending a decade in the 40,000s and falling to a 25-year low of 34,595 in 2021.

The combined total of fall archery and gun harvests has been less than 5,000 turkeys in each of the past five years, but these hunting seasons allow hunters to capture birds from both sexes, and the majority are consistently hens. Further reducing a hunter’s chance of completing a tag may lead to a further drop in gun hunt participation in the fall, but protecting potential brood builders seems like a better plan for the near future. .

The Department of Conservation has partnered with the University of Missouri to study how habitat, predators, and weather in Putnam County, as of 2021, affected the survival of turkey hatchlings. The research collects temperature and precipitation data at the same locations where nest predators like skunks, raccoons and opossums and top predators like foxes, bobcats and coyotes are monitored. The cooperative research project is planned to last more than five years, so even the first results are still a long way off.

The expanding range of nine-banded armadillos is the least likely cause for concerns about turkey population and poult survival, except to indicate global warming. More frequent spring floods and severe thunderstorms are far more deadly to small birds than competition for insects.

Two other factors not included in the study are also possible contributors to the reduction in turkey populations. The overgrowth of pesticides wipes out far more insects than an army of armadillos can eat, and using herbicides to control weeds on cropland cannot be healthy for the wildlife that uses those same expanses. earthen. No one in their right mind would walk barefoot through a field immediately after spraying it with Roundup, but that’s what wild turkeys have to do. They also eat seeds which may contain traces of these chemicals. No matter how safe they are, substances designed to kill plants cannot be safe for birds.

The challenges are significant and the evidence is still being collected. But the perils facing the state’s No. 1 game bird are real.

John Winkelman has been writing about outdoor news and issues in Jefferson County for over 30 years and is associate editor of Outdoor Guide magazine. If you have story ideas for Leader’s outside news page, email [email protected], and you can find more outside news and updates at johnjwink.com.