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Boom and Bust: Turkeys in the Winter





There’s little doubt that whitetails are number one in the hunting world, but it could be argued that wild turkeys are a close second. Similar to whitetails, turkeys are also a conservation success story.


In the early 1900s, their population dipped as low as 30,000 nationwide due to extensive logging and unregulated hunting. When the National Wild Turkey Federation was formed in 1973, the population was already on the rebound and numbered approximately 1.3 million birds. Decades later, that number reached an historic high of over 7 million birds nationwide. You can now hunt turkeys in 49 states, including Hawaii. In fact, Alaska is the only state without a turkey population.


Turkeys have expanded their range considerably in recent years and can be found farther north than ever before. Many parts of Canada now have huntable populations, although harsh winters tend to keep numbers sparse. Deep snows and poor food sources can be a deadly combination for turkeys in winter in the north country. In this region of the United States, though, turkeys seem to make it through winter just fine.


According to research, fat tissue comprises 25% of an adult turkey’s body weight in the winter and 15% of a juvenile’s body weight. Overall, males have greater fat reserves, but females are better suited for surviving long stretches of harsh weather known as “fasting conditions,” which are times when the birds don’t move much to feed and must tap into fat reserves. In a way, this is similar to the semi-hibernation period that whitetails and other wildlife go through. They move so little in order to conserve energy, yet at the same time, they can starve to death despite a food source being relatively close by.


The Pennsylvania Game Commission (as well as other state wildlife agencies) used to promote a winter feeding program for turkeys and other wildlife, but those were canceled a number of years ago as studies suggested that potential negative effects outweighed the positives. According to the PGC website, a 19-year study done in McKean County, PA, found that winter feeding did very little to help turkey populations through the winter anyway. During severe winters, losses of up to 30% were common, and in higher elevations, losses were as high as 60%, despite supplemental feeding in the study area.


If you’ve ever visited McKean County, you’ll understand why. It’s rugged, mountain country with only a small portion of agricultural lands. However, even in these less-than-ideal conditions, turkey populations still rebounded in just a year or two.


In another study in Elk County, PA, the PGC monitored two turkey game farms during three consecutive harsh winters (1976-78) and provided supplemental feeding for the turkey populations there. Prior to the winter of 1976, an estimated 150-200 turkeys lived on one of the preserves. By the time the winter of 1978 ended, only 16 birds remained. Again, that was despite winter feeding.



The primary factor that effects turkey populations is breeding success. Wet summers can spell doom for most ground-nesting game birds that breed in the spring, including turkeys, grouse, and pheasants. Poults are susceptible to hypothermia as well as starvation and cold, wet springs can delay the emergence of insects, which are their primary food source.

The health of a hen’s chicks often depends on the health of the hen herself. Mild winters offer fewer stressors and shorter periods of harsh weather, which in turn means that hens enter mating season in better breeding condition. Fat reserves are quickly restored as food becomes available earlier in the year. In the event that their first nesting attempt fails, healthy hens have a better chance of trying to nest again that same spring.


Habitat is also a key component of a strong turkey population. Proper browse and winter habitat are vital for adult survival during harsh conditions. And during spring nesting time, early successional habitat increases brood success because it provides overhead cover from predators and wet, marshy areas and seeps that attract insects for the chicks to feed on.


Generally speaking, more hens means more gobblers. Similar to the world of whitetails, though, having more females of the species around often makes it more difficult to harvest a big male. After all, why should he respond to a call when so many ladies are readily available? Despite that, I doubt you’ll ever hear a turkey hunter say they need to kill more hens in order to make the gobbler hunting better.


The main reason hens are so protected is because turkeys are more susceptible to huge population swings. Hens typically lay 9-13 eggs per nest. However, studies show that only 10-40% of those nests hatch successfully, and only 25% of those chicks will actually survive past four weeks of age. Considering these statistics, it’s easy to see how turkey populations can boom and bust every few years depending on weather and available food sources.


Here are a few fun facts:


-- According to the PGC website, turkey populations were dangerously low in Pennsylvania by the 1930s, with the bulk of those birds living in the central, ridge-and-valley part of the state where land was unsuitable for farming and too rugged to be overhunted.


-- Pennsylvania established two turkey game farms in 1915, raising and releasing more than 200,000 game farm turkeys throughout the state between 1930 and 1980. Overall, though, the success of these stocked birds was minimal. In 1979, the PGC began trapping and transferring wild birds to areas with quality habitat, and that’s when turkey populations started to take off. The turkey game farms eventually closed in 1980.


-- In 2018, the most recent, complete harvest data available online, the total harvest for the year was 49,678 turkeys statewide. Total turkey population that year was estimated at 228,800 birds.


-- Other states have seen a similar trajectory. Let’s look at the history of the turkey population in Ohio, which is more agricultural than PA. According to the Ohio DNR website, there were zero turkeys in Ohio as of 1904. In the 1950s, reintroduction efforts began and the first modern-day turkey season opened in 1966 in only nine counties. That year, only 12 birds were checked.


-- The first statewide season in Ohio was in 2000 and hunters killed more than 20,000 turkeys that year. Today, the population is estimated at 200,000 birds, and wild turkeys occupy all 88 Ohio counties with the highest densities found in the eastern half of the state. Now that’s what I call a conservation success story!



-By Ralph Scherder


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