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Finding the bright side of Pennsylvania's turkey population decline

Bob Frye
| Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, 6:10 p.m.
Though Pennsylvania’s turkey population peaked at about 280,000 in the early 2000s, the birds still number in the 200,000s.
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Though Pennsylvania’s turkey population peaked at about 280,000 in the early 2000s, the birds still number in the 200,000s.

Ever had someone come up to you and say, “there's good news and bad news?”

For more than a quarter century, turkey hunters rarely had to deal with that.

There were about 1.3 million turkeys in the United States in 1973 when the National Wild Turkey Federation was formed. By the early 2000s, the group says, the population hit a historic high of nearly seven million.

There seemed no end to where the numbers might go.

No longer.

While the birds aren't exactly struggling, populations seem to have settled into a new, lower normal in many places.

Pennsylvania, for example, had an estimated 280,000 turkeys at its peak in the early 2000s, according to the Game Commission. The population dropped to fewer than 200,000, then rebounded.

But it's never come all the way back, fluctuating between 204,000 and 234,000 since 2011.

With the fall turkey seasons here, it looks to be more of the same this year.

Summer sighting surveys indicate that turkey numbers are comparable — neither significantly higher nor lower — than they were last year.

Pennsylvania's 2016 survey revealed an average of 2.37 poults, or newborn birds, per hen, according to the Game Commission. This year, the statewide average was 2.28.

Things varied widely, though.

Unit 4A had 4.62 poults per hen this year. No other unit performed better. But in unit 2A, there were just 0.92. No unit did worse.

“Turkey reproduction this summer varied across the state with above-average recruitment in some wildlife management units but below average in neighboring ones, so it's best to get out and see for yourself what the reproduction was like in your area,” said Mary Jo Casalena, the commission's turkey biologist.

Lest Keystone State hunters feel too bad, though, they at least can take some level of comfort in two things.

First, it's not just here.

Turkey populations are struggling to some degree in other states, too.

The summer turkey sighting survey done by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources revealed 2.3 poults per adult hen. That's a little better than last year's 2.0, but still below the 15-year average of 3.

That's “less than ideal,” admitted Paul Peditto, the agency's wildlife and heritage service director.

New York is seeing much the same thing.

According to that state's Department of Environmental Conservation, this year's summer turkey sighting survey found 2.5 poults per adult hen. That's down from 2.8 a year ago and the lowest recorded since 2009.

“Reproductive success gradually improved from the low observed in 2009 through 2015, but the past two years have been below the 10-year average,” the agency said.

Second, the hunting can still be good.

In Maryland, Peditto said, while it's true that populations are down, they're down from a big peak, so plenty of birds remain.

The same is true in Pennsylvania, Casalena said.

Spring gobbler hunters this year killed an estimated 38,101 birds. That was 6 percent more than 2016, so birds remain available, she said.

That's true even those fall harvests are trending downward.

Last year's fall harvest was 10,844, down 35 percent over the previous three-year average of 16,688.

Casalena attributed that to a variety of factors, from decreased fall hunting participation to below-average turkey reproduction and shorter seasons.

Time remains for hunters to do better this fall. The first phase of hunting has closed in some wildlife management units but continues in others. And there's still the statewide three-day season that starts on Thanksgiving. That's a big one; about 18 percent of the fall harvest occurs then.

To find birds, Casalena suggests looking for food first.

The abundance of food, from acorn, beech and cherry production to soft mast — think apples and grapes — varies pretty widely by region.

The birds will be around food, of course. But how much food is available to them can determine, in part, hunter success.

Areas with abundant food sources tend to make the flocks more nomadic and therefore harder to find, Casalena said. The birds could be anywhere at any time.

Areas with less food, by comparison, tend to keep flocks congregated, making them easier to find, she said.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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