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Wildlife Species Guide

Wild Turkeys in Nebraska
Wild Turkeys The Turkey's Year Monitoring The Flocks
Challenge of the Hunt Sex Identification Age Determination

Monitoring The Flocks

The Gobbler Since the first releases of Merriam’s turkeys in the Pine Ridge, the goal of wild turkey management in Nebraska has remained unchanged: to maintain turkey populations sufficient to support hunting and aesthetic enjoyment without adversely affecting other public interests.

Nearly all of Nebraska’s suitable wild turkey habitat is privately owned, and influencing turkey populations through habitat acquisition and manipulation on private land is difficult. The Habitat Program, funded by the sale of Nebraska Habitat Stamps to hunters and wildlife enthusiasts, has financed the purchase of several turkey habitat sites and habitat improvement projects on public land.

Introductions of live-trapped wild turkeys and capture and transplant operations, the dominant management activities from the 1950s through the 1980s, have given way to monitoring and inventorying turkey populations and controlling the harvest in spring and fall wild turkey hunting seasons.

Flock and population inventories and analysis of hunter harvest information play major roles in current wild turkey management, providing the basis for spring and fall hunting regulations and helping to determine how many permits will be issued, the length of the seasons and their opening dates.

Winter flock counts, primarily from cooperating private landowners, provide information about potential breeding populations and minimum population estimates. Mail-in survey cards are sent to landowners with traditional, long-utilized wintering sites, and the response rate from two mailings in January and early February is usually 70 percent or higher.

Brood surveys conducted in July and early August provide an indication of reproductive success, including poult-to-hen ratios, age ratios and production information useful for predicting fall populations and adjusting harvest regulations.

To conduct brood surveys, biologists, wildlife technicians and cooperators drive established routes during the early morning hours. The number of hens and poults seen and the estimated age of the poults are recorded on data sheets. Hens without broods and gobblers seen on the brood routes also are recorded. Winter flock counts and spring poult-to-hen ratios from summer brood surveys are used to predict relative fall populations.

Beginning with the first fall hunting season in 1962, hunters were required to check in their birds at game check stations. The degree of precision provided by mandatory game checks for wild turkey is no longer considered necessary, and turkey check stations were discontinued in 1987. Total harvest is now estimated using a questionnaire mailed to selected permit holders. Information about sex and age composition in the harvest is obtained from feather samples submitted by successful hunters. Hunter success also is a good indication of turkey population levels.

Turkeys taken during the fall hunting season reveal other characteristics of the population. In an expanding population, the ratio of young birds to old birds is greater than in a stable population, for example, and the occurrence of disease or parasite infestations in a population or flock can be discovered by inspecting harvested birds. Crop-content examinations made during the hunting seasons reveal much about the birds’ foraging and feeding habits.

Biologists sometimes trap turkeys when they flock together on wintering areas after the fall hunting season. Some are marked for life-history studies, and others are used for transplanting. One trapping effort lasting several years, for example, investigated turkey movement patterns and showed considerably greater movement of turkeys along he Niobrara River than in the Pine Ridge.

Harvest is controlled on a unit basis by establishing several types of hunting seasons and by controlling the number of permits issued. In the spring season, only gobblers or bearded hens are taken (bearded hens were first allowed in 1996). Since a gobbler can successfully mate with many hens, the gobbler-and-bearded-hen season has little if any effect on the population, and it allows hunters to take more birds without affecting the total population.

Fall seasons provide an opportunity for hunters to take some of "surplus" birds from the population, birds that would otherwise be lost to other causes. Within limits, hunting mortality is compensatory and not additive to mortality from natural causes. That is, hunters kill birds that would be lost to natural causes, not birds in addition to those that would be lost to natural causes.

Biologists have determined that up to 15 percent of the hens in a healthy population could be taken without affecting the population in succeeding years. That is not the case when a population is below its carrying capacity, the maximum number of individuals of one species or the number of species a habitat area can support without detrimental effects, since natural mortality (losses to disease, predators, and other natural causes) usually is proportionately lower in a population below carrying capacity.

In many areas of the state, control of hunting is based almost entirely on landowner tolerance. Since landowners control access in those areas, in effect, they control the harvest. Although turkeys sometimes cause depredation problems -- usually minor or controllable -- they are highly regarded by most landowners. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, the birds’ consume undesirable insects, especially grasshoppers, and some landowners are reluctant to allow enough hunting to keep a population at a level best for the health of the turkey population. Over-protection can lead to depredation complaints and problems for the turkeys themselves, as the potential for disease outbreaks increases in areas of high concentration.

Properly managed hunting is a valuable management tool in maintaining the health of Nebraska’s wild turkey populations. Constant monitoring through surveys, trapping and marking and analysis of data derived from the harvest ensure that turkey hunters take an appropriate number of birds from areas with adequate populations, and that the wild turkey will remain a permanent Nebraska resident.


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