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Alabama Turkey Special
Could this season be when turkey numbers and hunting quality begins a statewide rebound?
By Mike Bolton
Originally published in the March 2018 issue of AON
This is the scenario Alabama turkey hunters hope to see a lot more of in 2018. Alabama hunters saw a success rate of just 40 percent during the 2017 season and killed almost 30,000 birds less than they did just 10 years ago.
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While some of Alabama’s 45,000 turkey hunters witnessed indications of a wild turkey comeback last year, most approach the start of the 2018 season still convinced something is badly wrong.

The fourth year of an Auburn University study is beginning to show signs of a notable reduction in turkey reproduction rates. Brood surveys by WFF biologists are also showing a production decline. It is a pattern being seen all across southeastern states.

However, WFF officials say the perception by some that turkeys have simply disappeared just isn’t accurate. They say that the number of 3- and 4-year-old birds seen and killed by Alabama hunters last season proves that those turkeys were there all the time.

“Hunters who thought they no longer had any turkeys started seeing 3- and 4-year-old turkeys last season,” said Chucks Sykes, the director of WFF and an avid turkey hunter himself. “Obviously, those turkeys were there all along.”

If researchers, WFF officials and hunters agree on one thing, it’s that any decline in turkey hunting success cannot be attributed to any one factor. Research has not uncovered any smoking gun, but weather and predators could be at the forefront of the problem, all agree.

Sadler McGraw’s concerns are typical of Alabama turkey hunters. The seven-time state turkey calling champion and two-time world calling champion hunts in Wilcox County. He says turkey hunting as he once knew it hasn’t existed for years.

“The turkey season was awful for me last year,” the Camden resident said. “It has been bad for about the last three years.

“People like to talk about the good old days. In 08, 09 and 2010, turkey hunting was as good as it gets in Alabama. You’d hear a turkey gobble every day during the 40-day season. You’d go to a gobbling turkey or call one in every one of the 40 days.

“I only heard three or four turkeys gobble last season,” Sadler said.

Statistics compiled by WFF back up Sadler’s observations. In 2008, a survey of turkey hunters revealed that 57,700 hunters killed 49,000 birds. Those numbers stayed pretty consistent until 2013 when those numbers began a steady decline.

By 2015, it was evident that something might be wrong. The number of turkeys killed dropped to 41,515, roughly 7,500 less than just eight seasons before. By 2016, the frustration among turkey hunters was apparent. The number of  turkey hunters dropped to 43,769 that season, a full 14,000 fewer than the season before and almost 16,300 fewer than the season before that.

The 2016 turkey harvest was 30,670, almost 11,000 fewer birds than the season before and more than 18,000 fewer than the 2008 season.

Last season, the decline in turkey kills was very dramatic with just 19,146 birds killed, a whopping 11,500 birds less than the year before.

Those numbers are scary, but many Alabama’s turkey hunters have a sense of renewed hope as the 2018 spring turkey season begins in most parts of the state on March 15.

In 2016, reports from various parts of the state indicated a good crop of turkey poults. In 2017, helped along by dry weather, many reported seeing an even better hatch.

Late last year, many landowners and even deer hunters reporting seeing older turkeys that just didn’t seem to be there in years past.

Sykes knows there is a perception among many Alabama turkey hunters that the sky is falling, but he says that their beliefs don’t always include logic.

“The turkey population went through a typical cycle there, and everybody absolutely flipped out,” he said. “The weather was absolutely horrendous there for a couple of years when it rained, it was cold and the wind blew. The turkeys aren’t going to gobble when the weather is like that. Most people can only hunt on weekends, and there were so many weekends like that. 

“We went through two years of very marginal hatches because of the weather, and the numbers were down. Last year, people were saying they were seeing more turkey poults than the two previous years combined.

“Last year, and I experienced this myself, people were killing 3- and 4-year-old birds that hadn’t been gobbling in the past few previous years.

“I think we’re going to be in really good shape this season if we get the right weather.”

Sykes says social media distorts the perceptions of turkey hunters. It makes them believe things are worse than they are, he says.

“We live in an instant gratification society right now,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how bad the weather is, there are people who are going to sit along a dirt road and bushwhack one or be in the right place at the right time to kill one.

“They post their turkeys on the Internet and hunters say, ‘Everybody else is killing turkeys, why am I not even hearing any? Something is wrong.’ That makes a perceived problem seem a lot worse.”

Turkey hunter Opie Elliott lives in Hulaco in Morgan County and hunts turkeys in several locations, including Morgan County, Greene County and the Choccolocco and Bankhead WMAs. His observations last season seems to mirror what Sykes believes.

“The turkeys seemed to become extinct everywhere I hunted about three years ago,” Opie said. “Last year, all of a sudden, we were hearing five or six turkeys a day gobbling. I killed three, and my buddy tagged out. We saw a lot of turkeys last season.

“These were trophy birds, too. I saw a tremendous amount of 3-year-old birds and took some that were 4- and 5-years old.

“My family owns 1,300 acres in Greene County, and where I wasn’t seeing or hearing any turkeys for several years, I saw a lot of them this time during deer season.

“We had a neighbor down there tell us that he wasn’t even aware that he had turkeys on his property until last year.”

Opie says he isn’t quite sure what made the turkeys disappear for a while, but he has some guesses.

“For one thing, the coyote population is way down where I hunt,” he said. “We’ve been trapping and shooting every coyote possible, and I think they may have finally gotten the word and moved on.

“I believe the weather played a big part, too. We had that drought and weren’t getting an abundance of rain.”

Wildlife biologists and knowledgeable turkey hunters agree that cold, rainy weather will make turkeys clam up and not gobble. Should that weather continue after the poults hatch, it can have a devastating impact.

Studies have shown that a newborn turkey cannot handle much rain while it is developing its feathers. The newborn seeks protection by getting under its mother’s wings. The mother has a gland that secretes oil on her back and wings. That makes her feathers waterproof and capable of shedding rain like an umbrella, but sustained rain can eventually overwhelm her feathers and put the poults in jeopardy.

Dr. Barry Grand at Auburn University and six graduate students are spearheading a 5-year wild turkey study in Alabama that is now into its fourth year. That study tagged 200 birds across the state, and they are being monitored for survival and productivity.

He said the study is looking to find real answers instead of anecdotal evidence. He said the study is finally starting to indicate some problems.

“One thing we’re seeing is fewer poults making it into the fall population,” he said. “We’re seeing less hatching, and we’re trying to determine any role that weather and predators may play.”

WFF has announced that for research purposes, six WMAs will have the start of turkey season delayed from March 15 to March 24.

Those WMAs are Barbour, Skyline, Oakmulgee, Lowndes, Choccolocco and Perdido River.

“There is a belief that disturbances in the woods such as hunters being there when the hens are first starting to lay affects the nesting success,” Brand said. “That is not confirmed, but we want to see how delaying the start of the season works.

“Arkansas has moved the start of its turkey season back, and I know Tennessee and Mississippi are looking into that.”

Steve Barnett, the supervising wildlife biologist for WFF in Spanish Fort, oversees Alabama’s wild turkey program and compiles the data from turkey hunting surveys statewide. He confirms that the delayed turkey season start on the six WMAs is just a test to see if a later season start affects turkey production.

“As part of our ongoing research, we are looking into the possibility of  experimenting with various alternative seasons,” he said.

Barnett said the Auburn University study and WFF surveys are definitely indicating a decline in Alabama turkey numbers.

“Our brood surveys for several years have been showing a production decline,” he said. “We like to see a survival rate of three or four poults from the hens that nest, but the trend in recent years got below two per hen.

“Last year, we saw an improvement. We saw 3.23 poults per nesting hen survive.”

Barnett pointed out that not all hens nest every year, and some lose entire broods to predators before they hatch or before they get old enough to survive on their own. He said a wide variety of predators love the eggs of the ground-nesting turkey, as well as the poults when they hatch. He said raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes and bobcats are among the predators that eat turkey eggs and the young turkeys.

“In a great year, only about 30 percent of poults survive long enough to join the fall population,” he said.

He says there have always been hens that do not nest and predators, so what wildlife biologists across the Southeast are trying to determine is what has changed.

“Turkey reproduction rates have always been cyclic,” he said. “There have always been ups and downs, but we are now in an extended low valley.”

The studies by Auburn University and WFF are starting to reveal some interesting tidbits.

Brand said one surprising thing that the study is showing is that turkey behavior can be affected when hunters are in the woods, even when it’s deer season, and the birds aren’t being hunted.

“We’re seeing turkeys go into the bottoms when there are deer hunters in the woods, and those birds are staying there,” he said.

Barnett says WFF survey numbers show that not only do reproduction numbers vary from region-by-region in the state, but they can also vary from property-to-property.

“We’re seeing those who manage their properties for turkey experiencing better production numbers,” Barnett said. “Those who are burning, thinning and offering diverse landscapes are seeing better production than those who just have food plots and dirt roads.”

The Auburn University study will end next spring, Brand said. The group will then spend the next six months summarizing and writing reports with the results being ready late next year.

Alabama’s 2018 “Full Fans and Sharp Spurs” report is expected to be posted on by the start of the turkey season. It is compiled from the Avid Turkey Hunter Survey.
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