The American wild turkey is the most sought after, legally-protected small game species in New York state. In fact, come this May, more than 100,000 New York turkey hunters will set out in pursuit of a legal 'bearded' turkey.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation limits spring season hunters to harvesting only bearded turkeys for good reason. Beards, which may look like hair, are actually clumps of coarse feathers, which are characteristically used to determine the sex, age and condition of individual birds. Although a small percentage of females (hens) grow them, they are generally characteristic of males (toms or gobblers). Research has shown that, in most cases, you can maintain a healthy turkey population even after eliminating a large percentage of toms from the flock. Since the spring season occurs after most hens have been bred, and almost all bearded turkeys are toms, the spring turkey harvest has very little impact on the next generation. In fact, a recent Virginia Tech study looked at the timing of turkey hunting seasons across the northeast and found that New York's spring season was perfectly timed, based on available data for breeding and nesting turkeys in our region.
DEC wildlife managers remain committed to safeguarding the long-term health of wild turkey populations and to providing ample opportunities for turkey hunting while preserving a sustainable harvest. They know that the long-term security and maintenance of our state's wild turkey population is directly tied to minimizing the risk of overharvesting. They also know, that a particularly cold or snowy winter can appreciably affect wild turkey populations, especially when it comes to the survival of young birds (jakes and jennies) and that populations may also be dramatically reduced by predation, disease, and/or poaching. But more study is needed to fully understand trends in turkey abundance and distribution and how weather, habitat, changing landscapes, and various other factors affect turkey populations and impact harvest.
Understanding what hunters want from and for the resource is an equally important part of turkey management planning. In recent years DEC, in partnership with Cornell University's Human Dimensions Research Unit, conducted a statewide survey of turkey hunters to determine their motivations, attitudes and opinions on turkey populations, hunting opportunities, and other related issues. And starting this month, DEC is kicking off a four-year banding study in Regions 3 through 9, the areas of the state where turkey populations are largest. The study will allow scientists to examine survival rates, hunter harvest rates, and harvest reporting rates. Of particular interest are harvest rates for hens. The data they gather will support future management efforts.
DEC wildlife researchers are asking landowners with overwintering turkey populations on their property to assist them in their study by allowing technicians onto their land to trap, band, and immediately release hen turkeys. Cooperating landowners are assured that no birds will be removed and / or relocated. Interested persons in Franklin, Clinton, Essex, Hamilton, Warren, Washington, Saratoga and Fulton Counties can contact their regional DEC project coordinator, Melissa Neely, by calling 518-623-1273. For additional information, interested landowners can contact the DEC at 518-402-8886.
Managing your property for wild turkey habitat
Turkeys require diverse habitats, which must be adequate to sustain a flock, not just an individual. A flock may use several thousand acres to support its needs. In fact, flocks of wild turkeys may range over several square miles in just one day. Therefore, a good turkey habitat management plan will also evaluate habitat provided by adjoining properties and compensate for deficiencies. In fact, when planning management, neighboring landowners may want to consider joining forces. When neighbors work together, turkey flock habitat can often be greatly improved with just a few small enhancements.
Turkeys appear to do best in areas where mixes of forested and actively farmed or reverting farmland are found. A rough overview of good turkey habitat might consist of 50 to 75 percent forestland, about half of which should be mature hardwood, with another 10 percent in clumps of conifers (spruce, balsam, white pine, hemlock). When cutting timber, a good percentage of mast producing trees should be left standing.
There should be forest openings throughout the property. These include old, abandoned fields and agricultural areas, as well as those that have resulted from timber cuts, beaver activity, logging roads, power lines, and other rights of way. One to 3-acre forest openings can be created where none exist. If desired, clearings can be planted with a mixture of grasses, forbs and legumes. Shrub and brush growth provide excellent cover for nesting hens and young poults, in addition to producing food, and can be encouraged by removing trees along clearings and at woodlot edges.
Field crops are an extremely important food source for turkeys, as well. I'm not saying landowners and farmers should plant a crop for the birds, but I am suggesting leaving a bit of corn etc. around the edges of harvested fields in isolated areas to provide a source of high energy food in winter, when the animals' needs are greatest.
Since hens like to nest in hayfields, managing old hay fields to encourage grassy growth, which will reduce predator invasion of nests, is recommended. This will also increase insect populations. Insects are a fundamental part of turkeys' diets.
If you'd like more information about wild turkeys and habitat, please feel free to contact me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by calling Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County at 518-483-7403.